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Pneumococcal Pneumonia

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Pneumonia is a lung disease. Pneumococcal pneumonia, a kind of pneumonia, can infect the upper respiratory tract and can spread to the blood, lungs, middle ear, or nervous system.

Pneumococcal pneumonia mainly causes illness in children younger than 5 years old and adults 65 years of age or older. The elderly are especially at risk of getting seriously ill and dying from this disease. In addition, people with certain medical conditions, such as chronic heart, lung, or liver diseases, or sickle cell anemia are also at increased risk for getting pneumococcal pneumonia. People with HIV/AIDS or people who have had organ transplants and are taking medicines that lower their resistance to infection are also at high risk of getting this disease.

Cause

Pneumonia can be caused by a variety of viruses, bacteria, and sometimes fungi. Pneumococcal pneumonia is caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae or strep. S. pneumoniae is also called pneumococcus.

Transmission

Pneumococcus is spread through contact with people who are ill or who carry the bacteria in their throat. You can get pneumococcal pneumonia from respiratory droplets from the nose or mouth of an infected person. It is common for people, especially children, to carry the bacteria in their throats without being sick.

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Symptoms

Pneumococcal pneumonia may begin suddenly. You may first have a severe shaking chill which is usually followed by

  • High fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Chest pains

Other symptoms may include

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle aches

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider can diagnose pneumonia based on your

  • Symptoms
  • Physical exam
  • Lab tests
  • Chest X-ray

Other bacteria and germs also can cause pneumonia. Therefore, if you have any of the symptoms of pneumonia, you should get diagnosed early and start taking medicine, if appropriate.

Your healthcare provider can usually diagnose pneumococcal pneumonia by finding S. pneumoniae bacteria in your blood, saliva, or lung fluid.

Treatment

Your healthcare provider usually will prescribe antibiotics to treat this disease. The symptoms of pneumococcal pneumonia usually go away within 12 to 36 hours after you start taking medicine.

Some bacteria such as S. pneumoniae, however, are now capable of resisting and fighting off antibiotics. Such antibiotic resistance is increasing worldwide because these medicines have been overused or misused. Therefore, if you are at risk of getting pneumococcal pneumonia, you should talk with your healthcare provider about what you can do to prevent it.

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Prevention

Getting the pneumococcal vaccine is the main way you can reduce your chances of getting pneumococcal pneumonia. Vaccines are available for children and adults.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you get the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine if you are in any of the following groups:

  • You are 65 years old or older
  • You have a serious long-term health problem such as heart disease, sickle cell disease, alcoholism, lung disease (not including asthma), diabetes, or liver cirrhosis
  • Your resistance to infection is lowered due to
    • HIV/AIDS
    • Lymphoma, leukemia, or other cancers
    • Cancer treatment with X-rays or medicines
    • Treatment with long-term steroid medicines
    • Bone marrow or organ transplant
    • Kidney failure or kidney syndrome
    • Damaged spleen or no spleen
  • You are an Alaskan Native or from certain Native American populations

CDC also recommends that all babies and children younger than 59 months old get the pneumococcal vaccine. Children over 24 months old who are at high risk of getting pneumococcal disease and adults with risk factors may receive the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine.

Contact your healthcare provider to find out whether you or your child should be vaccinated to prevent pneumococcal pneumonia.

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Complications

In about 30 percent of people with pneumococcal pneumonia, the bacteria invade the bloodstream from the lungs. This causes bacteremia, a very serious complication of pneumococcal pneumonia that also can cause other lung problems and certain heart problems.

Research

NIAID supports research on more effective prevention and treatment approaches to control pneumonia and its causes including

  • Developing and testing vaccines and treatments for the disease-causing microbes that cause pneumonia
  • Stimulating research on the structure and function of these microbes
  • Developing better and more rapid tools to diagnose pneumonia
  • Understanding the long-term health impact respiratory pathogens (germs) have in various populations
  • Examining the effect of vaccines in high-risk populations
  • Determining how pneumococcus causes disease and becomes resistant to antibiotics

NIAID research has made important contributions to developing the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine for children. This vaccine helps prevent pneumococcal diseases in babies and toddlers and is the latest advance in developing vaccines against common bacterial infections.

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Last Updated September 22, 2011