Streptococcus pneumoniae (or pneumococcus) are bacteria that can cause various symptoms, which are known under the collective name pneumococcal disease. Pneumococci enter the human body through the nose and mouth and can be transmitted from human to human. Most healthy people’s immune systems are able to kill the bacteria before they cause infection, however children, elderly people, smokers, people who’ve just had the flu and people who have no spleen, are more likely to develop pneumococcal infection.
How do you catch it?
Pneumococcal infection is spread when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes small droplets containing infectious agents into the air. People who are nearby may breathe in the droplets. In addition, infection can be spread through kissing and shaking hands. Pneumococci are commonly found in the upper respiratory tract of healthy people. Babies and young children under the age of 3 are most likely to become infected. Also, elderly people with a weakened immune system are at a higher risk. Pneumococcal infections can be treated with antibiotics. People with severe pneumococcal infections often need to be admitted to hospital. In most cases, people fully recover from pneumococcal disease.
What are the symptoms?
Most healthy people do not develop pneumococcal disease. People who do get sick mostly develop the initial symptoms one to three days after infection. The initial symptoms vary from mild to severe respiratory infections. Examples include ear infection, infection of the sinuses, pneumonia, meningitis and blood poisoning. The early symptoms of bacterial meningitis caused by pneumococcal infection are often similar to those of a regular flu. Babies and young children who suffer from this disease are often drowsy and irritable. Blood poisoning caused by pneumococci can be identified by rapidly emerging symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, confusion and high fever. In some cases, infected people develop both meningitis and blood poisoning. Chills, high fever and pain while breathing often accompany pneumonia caused by pneumococcal infection. Children can also suffer from febrile convulsion and vomiting.
Since 2006, all children in the Netherlands are offered pneumococcal vaccination. This vaccine protects children against serious pneumococcal infections. Risk groups – people who are particularly susceptible to pneumococcal infection – can also consider vaccination. Furthermore, the spreading of the bacteria may be limited by taking precautionary measures when coughing. Always wash your hands afterwards.