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What are pneumococcal infections?

Pneumococcal infections are caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae.

This is a common cause of pneumonia, bacterial meningitis and otitis media ear infections.

It can also play a role in sinusitis, septic arthritis, osteomyelitis, peritonitis and endocarditis.

There are around 90 different types of pneumococcal infections, but only around 25% of these can cause serious illnesses.

Many people can carry the bacteria without it making them ill. The infection can be spread by a person coughing or sneezing, or from surfaces they've touched.

Common symptoms of pneumococcal infections include fever, headache and other aches and pains.

There are 2 main types of pneumococcal infections:

  • Non-invasive, usually less serious and not affecting major organs like the heart, or the blood.
  • Invasive, usually more serious and can affect major organs or the blood.

People most at risk from pneumococcal infections include babies and children under 2-years old, adults over 65, people with long-term conditions such as diabetes, weakened immune systems, including people having chemotherapy cancer treatment.

Pneumococcal infections are usually diagnosed by the person's symptoms, plus tests including blood tests and gram stain, where a sample from the infected area has a special stain added before being viewed under a microscope. The technician will look for the sample going purple, called gram positive, or pink, which is gram negative.

Mild pneumococcal infections may get better without treatment, but in other cases, antibiotics may be recommended.

For severe infections, antibiotics may be given through an IV drip in hospital.

Vaccines are available to protect against pneumococcal disease:

  • PCV (pneumococcal conjugate vaccine) is offered to under-2s as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.
  • PPV (pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine) is offered to adults who are 65 years and over, plus people in at-risk groups because of health conditions.

Good hygiene also helps prevent infection, with the same hand washing and other measures recommended to help prevent colds and flu.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on November 23, 2015

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