Health awareness

Pneumococcal disease myths and facts

We break down potential misperceptions about pneumococcal disease and its impact on both children and adults

December 1, 2020

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Pneumococcal [noo-muh-KOK-uhl] disease is a name for any infection caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae, also knows as pneumococcus. Pneumococcal infections can range from ear and sinus infections to pneumonia and bloodstream infections (bacteremia).

Myth: Pneumococcal disease is not serious

Fact: Pneumococcal infection contributes to death and disease worldwide

Pneumococcal pneumonia, for example, is one of the leading infectious causes of death for young children around the globe. As another example, each year in the U.S., pneumococcal pneumonia leads to an estimated 150,000 hospitalizations.

Myth: Pneumococcal disease is always pneumonia

Fact: Pneumococcal pneumonia (when it is confined to the lungs) and bacteremic pneumonia (pneumonia with bacteremia) are just two types of illnesses caused by pneumococcal bacteria

In addition to more common illnesses like sinusitis and middle ear infections, the most severe cases of pneumococcal disease occur when pneumococcal bacteria invade parts of the body that are normally free from germs, such as the bloodstream in the case of bacteremia. This is called “invasive” pneumococcal disease.

Additionally, pneumococcal meningitis is a rare but serious infection of the coverings of the brain and spinal cord. This may lead to long-term complications such as brain damage, hearing loss and seizures.

Myth: There is only one strain of bacteria that causes pneumococcal disease

Fact: There are numerous unique strains of pneumococcal bacteria – referred to as serotypes

Strains differ in a variety of ways: some are more prevalent in one country than another, some are more likely to cause certain types of pneumococcal disease, and some are more likely to be responsible for the most serious cases.

Myth: Pneumococcal disease affects everyone equally

Fact: Anyone can get pneumococcal disease, but some people are at increased risk

While healthy adults and children can suffer from pneumococcal disease, people at increased risk include children under the age of 2, older adults aged 65 and older, and people with certain chronic health conditions, like heart disease, diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Myth: COVID-19 and pneumococcal pneumonia are the same

Fact: Pneumonia is a lung infection that can result from a number of causes, including viruses, bacteria and fungi

While the cause of pneumonia isn’t always pneumococcal bacteria, they are a common cause. Pneumococcal pneumonia is caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae, while COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2. They are different diseases, but pneumococcal pneumonia and COVID-19 do share certain risk factors, including older age and certain underlying medical conditions.