What Is Streptococcus Pneumoniae?


Streptococcus pneumoniae is a group of bacteria that causes numerous infections and diseases in the body, including meningitis, bacteremia, ear infections, sinus infections and pneumonia. According to the National Network for Immunization Information, each year it causes around 5 million to 7 million ear infections, 150,000 to 570,000 cases of pneumonia, and 3,000 to 6,000 cases of meningitis in the United States. Left untreated, these bacterial infections can cause serious complications, including death.


Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria naturally exist in the nasopharynx, located in the back of the nose. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it causes infection when it escapes from the nasopharynx to other parts of the body, including the ears, lungs and bloodstream. Although it does not cause any diseases where it naturally exists, it can cause ear infections, sinus infections, pneumonia or meningitis if it spreads to other parts of the body. Collectively, these types of infections are called invasive pneumoccocal disease.


Streptococcus pneumoniae can cause ear pain, headache, chills, fever, disorientation, a stiff neck and chest pain. It can also cause shortness of breath and coughing. Symptoms typically appear within one to three days after the bacteria infects the body.


According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, streptococcus pneumoniae travels from person to person through the air. It spreads through small respiratory droplets, which are expelled after a person sneezes or coughs. Anyone near a person infected with streptococcus pneumoniae can catch it when the person sneezes or coughs.

Risk Factors

According to the CDC, people at risk for catching streptococcus pneumoniae include children under the age of two, the elderly, children who attend group day care facilities, people with HIV, and people with sickle cell disease. American Indians, including Alaska natives, are also at risk.


The disease caused by streptococcus pneumoniae is inhibited by using penicillin, a type of antibiotic. According to Antigenics.com, this treatment may not always work because some strains of the bacteria are resistant to it. Stronger antibiotics are being developed to handle these stronger strains of bacteria.


Two vaccines, called the 23-valent polysaccharide (PPS) vaccine and the 7-valent conjugate (PCV7) vaccine, can prevent a streptococcus pneumoniae infection. According to the National Network for Immunization Information, the PPS vaccine is used for older children and adults, whereas the PCV7 vaccine is for children under the age of three. The PPS vaccine is slightly more effective, protecting against 85 to 90 percent of all streptococcus pneumoniae strains. The PCV7 vaccine protects against approximately 80 percent of its strains.

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