Pneumococcal Pneumonia: A Serious Bacterial Illness

Pneumococcal pneumonia is a bacterial infection that affects the lungs. It is the most common bacterial illness and can develop into a serious disorder with potentially dangerous side effects.

In 2019, 2.5 million people died from pneumonia worldwide, with almost a third being children under 5.¹

While pneumococcal infections affect everyone, children younger than two and adults over 65 are at higher risk. Let’s learn about pneumonia and how to minimize your risk.

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What causes pneumococcal pneumonia?

A Gram-positive bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae causes pneumococcal pneumonia. This type of bacteria is typically spread through coughing, sneezing, and close contact. 

Once you’re infected, Streptococcus pneumoniae tends to colonize in the nasopharynx (upper part of the throat behind the nose), where it can spread to the respiratory tract and lead to pneumococcal pneumonia. 

Streptococcus pneumoniae is a relatively common bacteria, infecting over 900,000 people in the US annually.²

The symptoms of pneumococcal pneumonia

Pneumococcal pneumonia is a bacterial lung disease that can result in serious symptoms. These can develop quickly and last for weeks. Common symptoms of pneumococcal pneumonia include:

  • Fever

  • Fatigue

  • Chest pain 

  • Phlegmy cough 

  • Excessive sweating

  • Chills

  • Shaking 

  • Trouble breathing 

  • Older adults may experience confusion or low alertness

While some of the symptoms of pneumococcal pneumonia may be similar to a cold or flu, it’s a very different type of illness. Viruses cause the common cold and the flu, whereas pneumococcal pneumonia is the result of a bacterial infection. 

What are the complications of pneumococcal pneumonia?

When the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae gets into your respiratory system, it causes inflammation and other responses that lead to serious flu-like symptoms. 

It can also cause several complications, including: 

  • Empyema: Infection in the chest cavity and around the lungs

  • Endobronchial obstruction: Blockage of the airway that allows air into the lungs

  • Pericarditis: Inflammation of the heart’s outer lining

  • Atelectasis: Collapsed lung tissue

  • An abscess: Collection of pus in the lungs

Who is most likely to get pneumococcal pneumonia?

Pneumococcal pneumonia is most likely to occur in very young children, older adults, and people with other medical conditions. Conditions that can increase your risk of developing pneumococcal pneumonia include:

  • Asplenia

  • Asthma 

  • Diabetes

  • Heart disease

  • HIV

  • Lung disease

Certain types of medications can increase your risk of pneumococcal pneumonia, specifically immunosuppressive drugs. These include medications that treat:

  • Crohn’s disease

  • Irritable bowel disease

  • Rheumatoid arthritis 

  • Ulcerative colitis

How does a person get pneumococcal disease?

Pneumococcal disease spreads through close contact or coughing and sneezing, transferring the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria from one person to another. 

Diagnosis of pneumococcal pneumonia

Pneumococcal pneumonia can be hard to diagnose because its common symptoms feature in other illnesses like colds or the flu. Diagnosis of pneumococcal pneumonia largely focuses on identifying the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria.

Diagnosis will start with your doctor taking your medical history and providing a physical exam, which may include listening to your lungs. 

If your doctor thinks you might have pneumococcal pneumonia, they may send you for a blood or sputum test to identify bacteria types. 

Your doctor may need further tests to understand the severity of your symptoms, such as:

  • Chest x-ray

  • Pulse oximetry or arterial blood gas test

  • CT scan 

  • Bronchoscopy 

What is the difference between pneumonia and pneumococcal pneumonia?

Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria cause pneumococcal pneumonia, whereas pneumonia refers to a lung infection, whether bacterial, fungal, or viral.

Pneumococcal pneumonia treatment

Treatment of pneumococcal pneumonia relies on antibiotics to kill the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria causing the illness. 

However, this strain of pneumococcal bacteria has developed resistance to some types of antibiotics. It’s important to use antibiotics appropriately against pneumococcal pneumonia.

Doctors use these types of antibiotics to treat pneumococcal pneumonia:

  • Oral amoxicillin

  • Intravenous ceftriaxone

  • Intravenous cefotaxime

  • Intravenous amoxicillin-clavulanic acid 

While current treatment focuses on antibiotics, research has discovered that our immune systems can sometimes underreact or overreact to infections like pneumococcal pneumonia.³ This is called a dysregulated immune response. 

When your immune system underreacts, the infection can overwhelm your system. When it overreacts, your body starts attacking healthy cells, organs, and tissues. 

Researchers have noted that future therapies that focus on the inflammatory response could be useful in avoiding complications. 

How to prevent pneumococcal pneumonia

Vaccinations are available for pneumococcal pneumonia. These are key to managing the condition and reducing infection rates.

Pneumococcal vaccines don’t contain the live Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, so you don’t have to worry about infection through vaccination. Another benefit of pneumococcal vaccines is that you don’t have to get them yearly, like the flu vaccine.

Talk to your doctor if you’re interested in the pneumococcal vaccine. They’ll be able to determine if it’s a good fit for you and advise you on funding eligibility.

The lowdown

Pneumococcal pneumonia is a bacterial infection that can lead to serious symptoms. Young children, older adults, and immunocompromised people are at particular risk of infection. 

Doctors treat pneumococcal pneumonia with antibiotics. However, this bacterial strain is becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotic treatment, highlighting the importance of pneumococcal vaccines. Vaccination can reduce your risk of getting it in the first place. Speak to your doctor for more information on the vaccine.

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