Vaccination prevents the cluster of illnesses known as pneumococcal disease — pneumonia, meningitis, and blood infections. Here's what you should know.
Each year, pneumonia caused by pneumococcal bacteria sends about 150,000 people to the hospital. Up to 10,500 people die from the infection. You can get pneumococcal pneumonia at any age, but older adults and those with underlying conditions like lung disease are at the greatest risk of becoming seriously ill.
Fortunately, the cluster of illnesses known as pneumococcal disease — which also includes meningitis and blood infections — is preventable with vaccination.
Pneumococcal vaccines are recommended for different groups of people at different ages. It’s important to know which one you need, and the best time to get it.
What is pneumococcal disease?
Any infection caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria is called pneumococcal disease. These bacteria come in more than 100 different types. Most of us normally have at least some pneumococcal bacteria populating our nose and mouth.
Only a few types of these bacteria make us sick, causing illness to spread from person to person through droplets in the air.
- Pneumococcal pneumonia: A lung infection that causes fever, cough, chest pain, and trouble breathing
- Sinus infection: Symptoms like a stuffed nose, pain or pressure in your face, and a cough caused by a build-up of fluid in your sinuses
- Ear infection: Fluid build-up in your middle ear
- Meningitis: Inflammation in the lining of your brain and spinal cord
- Bacteremia: An infection in your bloodstream
Meningitis and bacteremia are less common than pneumonia, but they can be very serious.
Types of pneumococcal vaccines
Two different pneumococcal vaccine types are available in the United States:
- Pneumococcal conjugate vaccines: PCV13 and PCV20 (Prevnar) and PCV15 (Vaxneuvance)
- Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine: PPSV23 (Pneumovax)
The number in each vaccine name represents how many strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae the vaccine protects against. For example, PCV13 protects against 13 types, while PSV20 protects against 20 types.
Who needs each vaccine and when
The following are recommended vaccine schedules for children and adults from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Infants and young children need doses of PCV13 at ages:
- 2 months
- 4 months
- 6 months
- 12 to 15 months
Some medical conditions can increase the risk of pneumococcal disease in children ages 2 to 18. Such conditions include:
These children need one dose of PCV13 if they have not already received the vaccine, followed by one dose of PPSV23 at least 8 weeks later.
Health problems can increase risk in adults ages 19 to 64. These conditions include:
- Chronic heart, liver, or lung disease
- Kidney failure
- Blood or bone marrow cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, or multiple myeloma
- Cigarette smoking
If you have one of these conditions, you need one dose of PCV15 or PCV20 if you have not yet received a dose. If you get PCV15, you’ll need the PPSV23 vaccine at least one year later. Anyone with a weakened immune system (for example, because of an organ transplant or cancer) can get the PCV15 and PPSV23 vaccines spaced two months apart.
Adults 65 or older who have not already received the vaccine get one dose of PCV15 or PCV20. After PCV15, you’ll need one dose of the PPSV23 vaccine at least a year later.
What you can do
If you, or your child, are not yet protected against pneumococcal disease, ask your primary care doctor which vaccine you need.
It’s important to stay up to date on your pneumococcal vaccines because they protect against serious infections. If you’re worried about getting immunizations, know that the pneumococcal vaccines are very safe. Any side effects are usually mild and short-lived — such as pain and redness at the injection site or a low fever.
You can get the pneumococcal vaccines at your doctor’s office, at a pharmacy, or in a community health center. Most private health insurance plans and Medicare Part B cover the entire cost.
September 11, 2023
Janet O'Dell, RN