Pneumococcal Disease

Pneumococcal Disease

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What is pneumococcal disease?

Pneumococcal disease is caused by a germ (or bacteria) called Streptococcus pneumoniae or pneumococcus. There are many types of bacteria (strains).

Many people carry the bacteria in their nose or throat without becoming sick.

Sometimes it can move into the body and cause infections of the ear, nose (sinus), lung (pneumonia), bloodstream or brain (meningitis).

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms can range from mild to severe and depend on where the infection is.

Middle ear infections can cause ear pain, fever, irritability, hearing loss and sometimes vomiting.

Sinus infections can cause aching face, blocked nose, nasal mucous and headache.

Pneumonia can cause difficulty breathing, fever, chills, chest pain and cough.

Bloodstream infections (bacteraemia or sepsis) can cause fever, chills, drowsiness and pain.

Meningitis (an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord) can cause fever, headache, neck stiffness, pain when looking into lights, vomiting, confusion, and in babies, drowsiness, vomiting and poor eating and drinking.

How is it spread?

Pneumococcal disease is spread from person to person by contact with saliva or mucous such as sneezing, coughing or sharing toys.

A person can give others the germ as long as they carry it in their nose and throat.

How is it diagnosed?

It is important to know which bacteria are causing the infection so doctors can provide the correct treatment.

Mild (non-invasive) ear and sinus infections are usually diagnosed by your doctor based on symptoms.

Severe (invasive) infections such as pneumonia, bloodstream or meningitis, can be diagnosed by chest x-ray, blood samples or fluid samples from around the spinal cord.

These tests are taken by your doctor, often in hospital.

How is it treated?

Treatment depends on the symptoms. People with severe infections need quick treatment and usually go to hospital. Treatments include:

  • antibiotics
  • paracetamol to control the fever and pain
  • fluids to prevent dehydration.

How is it prevented?

Immunisation is the best way to prevent pneumococcal disease. Vaccines contain the strains that most commonly cause disease.

Immunisation is given by doctors and some local councils.

Who should get immunised?

Vaccination is for people at most risk of severe infection such as those who:

  • are under two years old
  • are over 65 years old
  • are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
  • have problems with or have had their spleen removed (asplenia)
  • have a weak immune system
  • have leaking spinal fluid
  • have a cochlear implant
  • have an intracranial shunt
  • have diabetes
  • have Down syndrome
  • drink a lot of alcohol
  • have liver disease
  • were born early (before 28 weeks)
  • smoke tobacco.

Infants and children

Pneumococcal vaccine is recommended and available free for all children at two, four and six months old (can be given as early as six weeks old).

It is also free for children aged between one and five years old who have certain medical conditions.

These children are revaccinated at 12 months old and a dose of the adult vaccine is recommended at four years old.


Pneumococcal vaccine is free for people aged 65 and older and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 50 and older.

Children and adults who have had pneumococcal disease still need to be vaccinated to be protected from catching the disease again from a different strain.

What should I do if I've had contact with someone with pneumococcal disease?

It is not usual for people to develop the illness from being close to someone with pneumococcal disease.  Preventive antibiotics are not given to contacts.

What should I do if I have pneumococcal disease?

Your doctor will inform you if you have the disease. They will provide advice according to your symptoms.

Call the Public Health Hotline on 1800 671 738 to speak to a clinical nurse consultant.


June 2015