The Travel Health and Vaccine Specialists

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Pneumococcal Disease (Streptococcus pneumoniae)

What is pneumococcal disease?
Pneumococcal disease is a contagious infection caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria (“pneumococcus”). These bacteria can cause many types of illnesses, including: pneumonia (infection of the lungs), ear infections, sinus infections, meningitis (infection of the covering around the brain and spinal cord), and bacteremia (blood stream infection). Pneumococcal disease is spread through coughing, sneezing, and close contact with an infected person.

Symptoms of pneumococcal disease depend on the part of the body that is infected. They can include fever, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, stiff neck, confusion and disorientation, sensitivity to light, joint pain, chills, ear pain, sleeplessness, and irritability. In severe cases, pneumococcal disease can cause brain damage, hearing loss, the loss of arms or legs, and death.

Who is at risk?
Pneumococcal disease occurs around the world. Travelers may be at higher risk if spending time in crowded settings or in close contact with children in countries where pneumococcal conjugate vaccine is not routinely used. Pneumococcal disease is more common in developing countries. Pneumococcal disease is also more common during winter and early spring but occurs year-round in the tropics. Outbreaks of pneumococcal disease are uncommon but may occur in certain situations, such as in nursing homes, childcare centers, or other institutions.

Certain people are more likely to become ill with pneumococcal disease. This high-risk group includes adults 65 years of age or older and children younger than 25 years of age. People who have conditions that weaken the immune system, like diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, and HIV/AIDS, or people who smoke cigarettes or have asthma are also at increased risk for getting pneumococcal disease.

What can travelers do to prevent pneumococcal disease?
Get a pneumococcal vaccine:

  • The pneumococcal vaccine can protect you from pneumococcal disease.
    • Adults 65 years and older should get the 23-valent pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23).
    • Younger adults who are smokers or who have certain medical conditions mentioned above should also get PPSV23.
    • Children up through 5 years of age routinely receive a different pneumococcal vaccine (13-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, PCV13), with the number of doses depending on age. Make sure your child is has received all the recommended doses of PCV13.
  • See Vaccine Information Statements (VIS) for more information:
    • PPSV23 VIS
    • PCV13 VIS

Practice hygiene and cleanliness:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • If soap and water aren’t available, clean hands with hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. If you need to touch your face, make sure your hands are clean.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Try to avoid close contact, such as kissing, hugging, or sharing eating utensils or cups, with people who are sick.