Te mate pneumococcal Pneumococcal disease

Pneumococcal disease is the name for infections caused by pneumococcus bacteria. The infections can range from mild ear and sinus infections to serious lung and blood infections. There are many strains of pneumococcus – immunisation protects against the most common ones.

Symptoms of pneumococcal disease

Blood infections can be very serious. Symptoms of a blood infection are often like a cold or the flu.

They often include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • low alertness
  • feeling very unwell.

Blood infections can lead to loss of a limb or limbs, or death.

When pneumococcus bacteria cause meningitis it is called pneumococcal meningitis. This is when pneumococcus bacteria infect the lining of the brain and spinal cord and cause swelling.

In the early stages, you usually feel unwell, with fever, headache and vomiting, just like a cold or flu.

Symptoms include:

  • stiff neck
  • fever
  • headache
  • eyes being more sensitive to light (photophobia)
  • confusion.

In pēpi meningitis may cause poor eating and drinking, low alertness, vomiting, and a high-pitch cry. Small pēpi may become unable to settle and dislike being held. They may have a bulging fontanel (the soft spot on the top of your baby’s head).

About 1 in 12 tamariki and 1 in 6 older adults who get pneumococcal meningitis die of the infection. People who live may have long-term problems, such as hearing loss or developmental delay.

Early stages of pneumonia can be like the flu, with:

  • aches
  • pains
  • fever
  • cough
  • difficulty breathing. 

Signs and symptoms of bone infection include:

  • fever
  • swelling, warmth and redness over the infected area
  • pain in the infected area
  • tiredness (fatigue).

It can be difficult to diagnose in tamariki who cannot explain where the pain is.

Joint infections typically cause:

  • extreme discomfort and difficulty using the infected joint
  • swollen, red and warm joint
  • fever.

Atypical haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) is a rare complication that leads to kidney failure.

You might need dialysis or a kidney transplant.

People at higher risk

Those most at risk of serious disease caused by pneumococcus are:

  • tamariki under 5, especially pēpi under 1 year
  • people with a weakened immune system
  • adults over 55 to 65 years of age
  • Māori and Pacific Peoples.

Being in daycare or around people who smoke, and living with lots of other people can also increase your risk of getting pneumococcal disease.

Tamariki at risk

Each year in Aotearoa New Zealand more than 150 tamariki under the age of 5 are admitted to hospital with pneumococcal disease.

Tamariki with some medical conditions are at higher risk of pneumococcal disease. This includes tamariki with:

  • congenital heart disease
  • some chronic lung conditions
  • kidney diseases
  • HIV infection
  • ear (cochlear) implants
  • spinal fluid shunts
  • a weakened immune system (immunocompromised).

How pneumococcal disease develops

Many people have pneumococcus bacteria living in their noses and throats. Most of the time, it does not make them sick.

A pneumococcal disease develops when the bacteria spread and create an infection in your body. This can happen when you are sick with another virus or if you have an ongoing disease such as chronic bronchitis.

Diagnosing pneumococcal disease

Healthcare providers test for pneumococcus bacteria to diagnose pneumococcal disease and rule out other conditions.

Your healthcare provider will check your history and symptoms to make sure it is not something else.

They may do tests such as a:

  • blood test
  • urine test
  • mucous (phlegm) test
  • chest x-ray
  • spinal tap (lumbar puncture).

Staying home

If you have pneumococcal disease or have been in contact with someone with pneumococcal disease public health services will contact you to tell you what you need to do. 

You may have to isolate at home to avoid giving it to others.

If you do not hear from them, phone Healthline for more information.

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116

Treatment for pneumococcal infections

Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics can treat most pneumococcal infections.

How long you need treatment for and the type of antibiotic needed depend on where the infection is and how serious it is.

Any serious pneumococcal disease can progress quickly. You might need to go to hospital for treatment.

Preventing pneumococcal disease

All pēpi in Aotearoa New Zealand can be immunised against pneumococcal disease as part of their free childhood immunisations at 6 weeks, 5 months and 15 months old.

It is important to protect babies from pneumococcal disease by getting them immunised on time. Three doses gives them the best protection.

Some high risk groups of people might need the vaccine at other times.

Find out about the vaccine, who needs it and when to get it.

Pneumococcal vaccine (internal link)