What is pneumococcal disease?

Pneumococcal disease is an infection caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria (“pneumococcus”). These bacteria can cause many types of illnesses, including: pneumonia (infection of the lungs), ear infections, sinus infections, meningitis (infection of the covering around the brain and spinal cord), and bacteremia (blood stream infection). Pneumococcus bacteria are spread through coughing, sneezing, and close contact with an infected person.

Symptoms of pneumococcal disease depend on the part of the body that is infected. They can include fever, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, stiff neck, confusion and disorientation, sensitivity to light, joint pain, chills, ear pain, sleeplessness, and irritability. In severe cases, pneumococcal disease can cause hearing loss, brain damage, and death.

Who is at risk?

Pneumococcal disease occurs around the world and is more common in developing countries. Travelers may be at higher risk if they are spending time in crowded settings or in close contact with children in countries where a vaccine is not routinely used. Pneumococcal disease is more common during winter and early spring in the U.S. but occurs year-round in the tropics. Outbreaks of pneumococcal disease are uncommon in countries that have introduced the vaccine but may occur in certain situations, such as in nursing homes, childcare centers, or other institutions.

Certain people are more likely to become ill with pneumococcal disease. This high-risk group includes:

  • Adults 65 years of age or older
  • Children younger than 2 years of age
  • People who have conditions that weaken the immune system, like diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, and HIV/AIDS
  • People who smoke cigarettes or have asthma

What can travelers do to prevent pneumococcal disease?

Get a pneumococcal vaccine

The pneumococcal vaccine can protect you from pneumococcal disease.

  • Adults 65 years and older should get the 23-valent pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23).
  • Younger adults who are smokers or who have certain medical conditions mentioned above should also get PPSV23.
  • A dose of PCV13 is also recommended for children 6 through 18 years of age and adults 19 years or older with certain medical conditions.
  • Children up through 5 years of age routinely receive 4 doses of a different pneumococcal vaccine (13-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, PCV13).

Practice hygiene and cleanliness

  • Wash your hands often.
  • If soap and water aren’t available, clean hands with hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. If you need to touch your face, make sure your hands are clean.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Try to avoid close contact, such as kissing, hugging, or sharing eating utensils or cups, with people who are sick.

Page reviewed on: Mar 09, 2017

Page reviewed by: Jessie L. Leyse, MD