Facts About Pneumococcal Disease in Adults

"I’m committed to helping reduce pneumococcal disease among US adults because over the years, I have seen too many lives cut short by this disease.

  —Mark Metersky, MD

University of Connecticut School of Medicine
What is pneumococcal disease?
Pneumococcal disease is an infection by common bacteria called “pneumococcus” [noo-muh-kok-uhs]. It can lead to severe illnesses like pneumonia, meningitis, and bloodstream infections (sepsis).

Is it dangerous?
Pneumococcal disease is serious and deadly. In the US, pneumococcal pneumonia, meningitis, and bloodstream infections kill tens of thousands each year, including 18,000 adults age 65 years and older. For those who survive, these infections can lead to hospitalization, long recovery time, and devastating life-long problems such as hearing loss, seizures, blindness, and paralysis. 

What are the symptoms?
Pneumococcal disease can strike quickly and without warning, but symptoms are not the same for everyone. Depending on whether the infection causes pneumonia, blood infection, or meningitis, people may have some combination of the following:

  • abrupt onset of fever
  • shaking/chills, cough
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • stiff neck
  • disorientation 
  • sensitivity to light

How do people get pneumococcal disease? 

Pneumococcal bacteria spread through coughing or sneezing or through direct contact, such as kissing. Not everyone who carries the bacteria becomes ill, so it’s possible to “catch” pneumococcal disease from someone who appears healthy.

Who can get pneumococcal disease?
Anyone can get pneumococcal disease, but those 65 and older and younger adults with certain chronic health conditions are more likely than others to get it. They are also at greater risk for serious illness.

Is there anything I can do to keep from getting pneumococcal disease?
There are vaccines that help prevent it. Getting pneumococcal vaccines as recommended reduces your chance of getting ill and/or dying from pneumococcal disease.

It's also important to get an influenza vaccination every year because having the flu increases the chances of getting pneumococcal disease. One pneumococcal vaccination and an annual influenza vaccination are fully paid for by Medicare Part B if your healthcare professional accepts the Medicare-approved payment.

How do I know if I should be vaccinated?
There are two types of pneumococcal vaccine recommended for adults: a pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) and a pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends both PCV13 and PPSV23 for*:  
  • All adults age 65 years and older
  • Adults age 19-64 years with:
    • Conditions or treatments that affect the immune system (such as HIV, lymphoma, leukemia, or Hodgkin disease, chronic kidney disease, radiation therapy, or certain long-term steroid use)†
    • Functional or anatomic asplenia†
    • Cochlear implants or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leaks

*PCV13 and PPSV23 cannot be given at the same visit. Your healthcare professional can tell you what doses you need and the timing that is right for you.

†A second PPSV23 vaccine is recommended for these persons five years after the first PPSV23.

CDC recommends only PPSV23 for the following adults age 19 to 64 years:

  • Those with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, lung, heart, or liver disease, or alcoholism 
  • Cigarette smokers 
  • Residents of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities

These individuals should receive a dose of PCV13 when they reach age 65 and should consult with their healthcare professional.

Are there side effects from vaccination?
Some people experience mild side effects, but these are usually minor and last only a short time. The most common side effects include swelling and soreness at the injection site may occur. Very rarely, fever, muscle aches, or more severe reactions may develop. Pneumococcal vaccination is safe and effective in preventing illness and death due to pneumococcal disease

For more information, speak with your healthcare professional or visit www.adultvaccination.org.

October 2014

©National Foundation for Infectious Diseases