Facts about Pneumococcal Disease for Adults

What is pneumococcal disease?
Pneumococcal (noo-muh-kok-ul) disease is an infection caused by a type of bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae. Pneumococcal disease can cause pneumonia, blood infection (sepsis), or meningitis. The bacteria spread through coughing or sneezing, or through direct contact such as kissing. Pneumococcal infection kills tens of thousands of people in the US each year. Older people are most likely to die from pneumococcal disease, but younger adults with certain health conditions are also at increased risk for severe illness and death.

Pneumococcal disease can strike quickly and without warning and the 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, and sensitivity to light.

There are two safe and effective vaccines to protect adults against the most severe complications of pneumococcal disease; a pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23) and a pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13). Vaccination is effective in preventing the worst outcomes of pneumococcal infection—meningitis and blood infection. If vaccinated people get pneumonia, there is some evidence that the case will be less severe.

Who should be vaccinated against pneumococcal disease?

  • People age 65 years and older. 
  • Adults age 19 to 64 years with any of the following:
    ● Chronic illnesses such as lung, heart, liver, or kidney disease; asthma; diabetes, or alcoholism.
    ● Conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, damaged/no spleen.
    ● Cochlear implants or cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF) leaks.
  • Adults who are living in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities.
  • Adults who smoke cigarettes.
Adults with any of the following need to receive both pneumococcal vaccines: conditions that weaken the immune system (e.g., HIV/AIDs, leukemia, lymphoma, and Hodkins disease); a damaged or missing spleen; cochlear implants; or CSF leaks.

Other adults who are recommended for pneumococcal vaccination only need PPSV23, but may need more than one dose. For more information, ask your healthcare professional.

Vaccine safety
Pneumococcal vaccination is safe and effective in preventing illness and death due to pneumococcal disease. Some people experience mild side effects, but these are usually minor and last only a short time. When side effects do occur, the most common include swelling and soreness at the injection site. A few people experience fever and muscle pain. As with any medicine, there are very small risks that serious problems could occur after getting the vaccine. However, the potential risks associated with pneumococcal disease are much greater than the potential risks associated with pneumococcal vaccination. You cannot get pneumococcal disease from vaccination.

Disease and vaccine facts
  • FACT: Invasive pneumococcal disease (meningitis and blood infection) can be prevented with safe, effective vaccines. 
  • FACT: Pneumococcal vaccine can be given at any time during the year.
  • FACT: Pneumococcal vaccine can be given at the same time as influenza vaccine, but in the opposite arm. 
  • FACT: In the US, 90 percent of pneumococcal disease cases are in adults.
  • FACT: There were about 3,000 deaths in the US from pneumococcal meningitis and sepsis in 2012. 
  • FACT: Heart problems are common in people hospitalized because of pneumococcal pneumonia.
  • FACT: Pneumococcal vaccine is fully reimbursed for people on Medicare Part B (no copayment and no deductible) if the healthcare professional accepts the Medicare-approved amount.
  • FACT: You cannot get pneumococcal disease from vaccination. 

Updated February 2014

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