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Pneumococcal Infections: Symptoms, Types, Risk Factors, Causes, and Treatment

Pneumococcal disease is an infection caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae. It causes contagious and potentially severe illnesses, including pneumonia, meningitis, and sepsis, so early diagnosis and treatment are essential. Vaccines are the best protection against developing infection.

What are Pneumococcal Infections?

Pneumococcal disease is caused by bacteria (Streptococcus pneumoniae) that can attack different body parts. When these bacteria invade the lungs, they can cause pneumonia. When they invade the bloodstream, they can cause sepsis; when it invades the covering of the brain, they can cause meningitis.= These severe conditions often require hospitalization and can lead to death. The bacteria can also cause milder common conditions like middle-ear infection (otitis media) and sinusitis.

Types of Pneumococcal Infections

Scientists have identified about 100 strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae. They cause two main types of pneumococcal disease:

  • Noninvasive: This type of infection is more common, less severe, and doesn’t spread to infect major organs or your blood.
  • Invasive: This more severe type occurs in your blood, in an area of your body that shouldn’t have bacteria usually, or in a major organ like your lungs.

Signs and Symptoms of Pneumococcal Infections

Symptoms of pneumococcal disease vary based on the location and severity of the infection. In the case of mild conditions, you may experience pain, fever, or swelling of your affected body part:

  • Signs and symptoms of middle ear infection caused by pneumococcal bacteria include infection behind the ear drum, pain, and fatigue.
  • Sinus infections may lead to nasal congestion, headache, or loss of sense of smell (anosmia).

Pneumococcal disease can also lead to life-threatening complications.

In the case of pneumonia, you may have the following:

  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever or chills

Symptoms of meningitis often include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Low appetite, poor drinking, or vomiting in babies
  • Sensitivity to light

If you have bacteremia, you may experience the following:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Confusion

You may develop an extreme inflammatory response to pneumococcal infection. These symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath 
  • Extreme discomfort or pain
  • Fever or chills
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Death, if not treated quickly

Talk to your healthcare provider about your symptoms. Call 911 immediately if you or your child experiences a fever over 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit, chest pain, or difficulty breathing.

What Causes of Pneumococcal Infections?

Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria cause pneumococcal disease. These bacteria are often found in the noses and throats of healthy people, especially children. Illness develops when the bacteria spread and set up an infection in your body.

Risk Factors for Pneumococcal Infections

Anyone can develop the pneumococcal disease. Children younger than two are more likely to develop an infection, along with children who have:

  • Cochlear implants
  • A cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disorders, such as nephrotic syndrome
  • Sickle cell disease, or damaged or removed spleens
  • Weakened immune systems due to medication, solid organ transplants, or conditions such as cancer or HIV/AIDS

Adults with weakened immune systems also face a higher risk of developing the pneumococcal disease, as well as those who:

Old woman in a wheelchair sitting by a Christmas tree
  • Are age 65 or older
  • Have alcohol use disorder
  • Have a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak.
  • Have chronic (long-term) lung disease, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, or kidney disease
  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Have cochlear implants

Treatment, Management, and Prevention of Pneumococcal Infections

Healthcare providers typically use antibiotics to treat bacterial infections such as pneumococcal disease. Your provider may have to try several antibiotics because the bacteria have become resistant to certain medications.

For mild infections, your healthcare provider may also recommend the following:

  • Fluids
  • Pain relievers
  • Rest

In severe cases, such as meningitis, you may need to stay in the hospital for treatment.

Pneumococcal vaccines are safe and don’t cause pneumococcal disease. Side effects are uncommon, typically mild, and should go away within two days. They may include pain, swelling, or tenderness where you received the shot. Rarely, you might experience symptoms like muscle aches, joint pain, or fever. Ask your provider any questions you may have about vaccine safety.

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