FAQ: Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus)
This document has been prepared for educational
purposes by Ellie Goldenberg, MPH. Should you have questions regarding
individual health concerns or health care practices, please consult
your physician or health care provider directly.
» What is Streptococcus
pneumoniae or pneumococcus?
Streptococcus pneumoniae is a bacterium that
causes respiratory infections in children and adults as well as
meningitis. It is the most common cause of bacterial inner ear
infection in children. It is common in adults and the most frequent
cause of pneumonia among the elderly and those not able to fight
Everyone carries bacteria in their nose and throat
without it making them sick. Streptococcus pneumoniae is
found in the nose and throat of 10 - 40 % of healthy people without
causing any symptoms of illness in these people.
Pneumococcal infections are most prevalent when respiratory
infections such as colds are common, usually during the winter
» How is it Transmitted?
The bacterium is passed from person to person by touching, and
by the person coughing and sneezing. Because about one in four
people have this bacterium in their noses or throats, everyone
is frequently exposed to this bacterium. However, most people
do not become ill.
» Who is at Risk of
Getting a Pneumococcal Infection?
Every year, about 1 in every 5,000 people will get
a serious infection due to this bacterium.
People who have no spleen or are chronically ill with
lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, cirrhosis, kidney failure,
AIDS/HIV and other diseases that decrease ability to fight infections
are at an increased risk of illness due to Streptococcus pneumoniae.
People taking drugs/treatment such as steroids, chemotherapy and
radiation therapy, people who have had a recent organ transplant
and elderly people who have had an episode of influenza also have
a greater chance of developing an infection caused by the bacterium.
» How is it Treated?
Penicillin is normally used to treat pneumococcal infections.
In some cases the bacteria may have developed resistance to penicillin
and another antibiotic will be used. It usually takes 24 - 48
hours for the treatment to work. People who have the bacteria
in their nose and throat, but are not sick, should not be treated.
» Is there a Vaccine
A vaccine is available for those at high risk of serious infection.
Your doctor will help to decide whether you or a member of your
family should be vaccinated. Only a single dose of vaccine is
required. It provides protection to 80% of young adults and 50
- 70% of the elderly against pneumococcal infections.
» Who Should Receive this
Pneumococcal vaccine is recommended for the following
groups (per canadian NACI guidelines):
- All persons 65 years of age;
- Adults with no spleen, spleenic dysfunction or sickle
- Adults with the following conditions: cirrhosis,
alcoholism, chronic kidney disease/failure, diabetes, chronic
cerebrospinal fluid leak, HIV infection and other immunosuppressive
conditions (Hodgkin's disease, lymphoma, multiple myeloma or
- Children 2 years with no spleen, splenic dysfunction
or sickle cell disease; and
- All children 2 years with kidney disease/failure,
chronic cerebrospinal fluid leak, HIV infection and other immunosuppressive
The vaccine is not recommended for children < 2
years as they do not respond satisfactorily. It is not recommended
for prevention of inner ear infections of childhood.
» Are there any Side
Reactions to a single dose of vaccine are usually mild.
Local soreness and redness around the injection site may occur,
but usually last less than 48 hours. Local swelling occurs less
commonly. Occasionally a slight fever may occur, usually confined
to the 24 hour period following vaccination.
This website has been made possible through an unrestricted educational grant from
Pfizer Canada Inc.