What is pneumococcal disease?

Short Answer

The Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria can cause four types of pneumococcal diseases, which kill more people in the United States each year than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined. The bacteria are in many people’s noses and throats and are spread by coughing, sneezing, or contact with respiratory secretions. Diseases caused by the bacteria include pneumococcal pneumonia, pneumococcal meningitis, pneumococcal bacteremia (a bloodstream infection), and otitis media (middle-ear infection). Symptoms vary widely depending on the type of disease. There are currently two vaccines used to prevent this disease.




Symptoms & Incubation

Pneumococcal pneumonia (lung infection) is the most common serious form. It causes the following:

  • Fever and chills
  • Cough
  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain

Pneumococcal meningitis is an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord. It causes the following:

  • Stiff neck
  • Fever and headache
  • Pain when looking into bright lights

In babies, meningitis may cause poor eating and drinking, low alertness, and vomiting.


Blood infection (bacteremia and sepsis) causes:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Low alertness

Pneumococcal disease causes up to half of middle-ear infections (otitis media). Symptoms are:

  • Ear pain
  • A red, swollen eardrum
  • Fever
  • Sleepiness


People can carry the bacteria in their nose and throat, and can spread the bacteria even if they don’t appear to be sick. Sometimes the bacteria spread from the nose and throat into the blood or lungs, causing severe disease. Other times it can spread to ears or sinuses, causing mild infections. When someone catches pneumococcal disease, symptoms generally appear quickly – usually from one to three days after infection.



Pneumococcal disease ranges from mild to very dangerous. About 4,000 cases of serious disease (meningitis and sepsis) occur each year in children under 5 in the U.S. These illnesses can lead to disabilities like deafness, brain damage, or loss of arms or legs. About one out of 10 children who get pneumococcal meningitis dies.



Pneumococcal disease spreads when an infected person sneezes or coughs, which sends the bacteria airborne through droplets of saliva and mucus.


High-risk Populations

Children younger than 2 years of age, children in group child care, and children who have certain illnesses (for example, sickle-cell disease, HIV infection, and chronic heart or lung conditions) are at higher risk than other children of getting pneumococcal disease. Children with cochlear implants or cerebrospinal (CSF) fluid leaks are more likely to get pneumococcal meningitis. In addition, pneumococcal disease is more common among children of certain racial or ethnic groups, such as Alaska Natives, American Indians living in certain communities, and African-Americans, than among other groups.



While there are more than 90 types of pneumococcal bacteria, the vaccine called PCV13 protects against the 13 types that cause most of the severe illness in children. The vaccine can also help prevent some ear infections. Almost all children (about nine children out of 10) who get PCV13 will be protected from the 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria in the vaccine.


Safety & Side Effects

The pneumococcal vaccine is safe, and it is effective at preventing pneumococcal disease. Possible side effects include:

  • Drowsiness after the shot, temporary loss of appetite, or redness or tenderness where the shot was given (these symptoms are typical in about half of children who receive the PCV13 vaccine).
  • About one-third of children experience swelling where the shot was given or have a mild fever, and about one in 20 experience a higher fever (over 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

It is safe to get PCV13 at the same time as other vaccines. However, young children (12 through 23 months of age) who get inactivated flu vaccine and PCV13 at the same time appear to be at increased risk for seizures caused by fever. These seizures, called febrile seizures, are scary for parents, but they are not harmful to children.


All babies should receive four doses of the vaccine at the following ages for best protection:

  • One dose each at  2 months,4 months, and 6 months; and
  • A fourth dose at 12 through 15 months of age.

A child who misses a dose or starts late should still get the vaccine.

Since the Vaccine Was Introduced…

Before the vaccine, there were about 700 cases of meningitis, 13,000 blood infections, and 200 deaths from pneumococcal disease each year among children younger than 5 years.