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Pneumococcal Disease

Page last updated on 09 November 2018

Pneumococcal disease is one of the leading causes of serious illness among Australian children under two years of age and in older adults.

Older Australians are especially at risk of death from this disease. Indigenous communities, in particular those from central Australia, are at an increased risk of contracting the disease. It is estimated that the disease kills around one million people worldwide every year.

Pneumococcal disease can cause a number of different illnesses ranging from pneumonia (infection of the lungs) to meningitis (infection of the lining of the brain) and infections of the blood and bone. 

There are at least 90 different strains of the bacteria, but only some of these regularly cause pneumococcal disease. In Australia, there are vaccinations available that help protect you against some of these strains. Vaccinations are free for children and adults over the age of 65 through the National Immunisation Program (NIP). If you have not received the minimum recommended dosage of the pneumococcal vaccine, speak to your healthcare professional about catch up options. 

Key disease information

What is pneumococcal disease?

Pneumococcal disease refers to the group of illnesses that can be caused by bacteria commonly known as pneumococcus. 

Most pneumococcal infections are mild, however some can cause serious complications or even death. 

From the upper airways, pneumococcus can cause infections in different parts of the body, such as the ear (otitis media, one of the most common pneumococcal diseases in children), sinuses, joints or bone.

Sometimes it causes serious illness like:

  • meningitis (infection of the lining of the brain)
  • pneumonia (infection of the lungs – one of the most common pneumococcal diseases in adults)
  • septicaemia (blood infection).


In adults, pneumonia with bacteraemia (presence of bacteria in the blood) accounts for 14% of cases of pneumonia in the community.

In children, middle ear infection is a common complication. In fact pneumococcus is the main cause of middle ear infection in children, found in around 50% of cases. Although the least common presentation in children, pneumococcal meningitis (infection of the lining of the brain) is a serious complication, which is fatal in around 30% of cases.

How is pneumococcal disease spread?

Pneumococcal disease is carried in the nose and throat of healthy adults and children. It can be passed from one person to another through sneezing and coughing. Many people (including children) become carriers at some time or other, but not all will become sick.

What are the symptoms of pneumococcal disease?

The symptoms of pneumococcal disease depend on the part of the body that is infected.


  • Fever and chills
  • Cough
  • Rapid or difficult breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion/low alertness (older adults)



  • Stiff neck
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Photophobia (eyes being more sensitive to light)
  • Confusion
  • Poor eating/drinking, low alertness and vomiting (babies)



  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Low alertness



  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Shortness of breath
  • High heart rate
  • Fever, shivering or feeling very cold
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Clammy or sweaty skin


Middle ear infection:

  • Ear pain
  • Red, swollen ear drum
  • Fever
  • Sleepiness


Joints and bones:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness
How can pneumococcal disease be prevented?

Serious pneumococcal disease is most common in children under two years of age and older adults over the age of 65 years. 

Vaccines for pneumococcal disease are provided as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP):

  • Infants are vaccinated at two, four and six months of age
  • Adults are vaccinated again once they turn 65 years of age
  • Other people may also require additional vaccinations if they have a chronic disease or if they are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.


Speak with your healthcare professional for further information regarding vaccination for pneumococcal disease. 

While vaccination can protect you from becoming infected, to prevent pneumococcal disease spreading, remember to practice good hygiene:

  • Always cover your coughs and sneezes
  • Wash your hands often.
Is pneumococcal disease the same as meningococcal disease?

Pneumococcal disease is not the same as meningococcal disease. While the sites of infection can be the same (such as infection of the lining of the brain – or meningitis), the terms ‘pneumococcal’ and ‘meningococcal’ describe different types of bacteria that infect the body. 

Pneumococcal disease is caused by the bacteria known as pneumococcus, while meningococcal disease is caused by a bacteria called meningococcus. Both of these bacteria may be found living naturally in the nose and throat of some people without causing symptoms, while in others, the bacteria can become invasive and cause disease.

The vaccines for pneumococcal disease and meningococcal disease are different, and being vaccinated against one of these diseases does not provide protection against the other. For more information about meningococcal disease, visit our meningococcal disease page.

VaccineHub offers general information only. Please see a healthcare professional for medical advice

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Sources & Citations

  1. Australian Government. Department of Health. National Notafiable Diseases Surveillance System. Number of notifications for all diseases by year, Australia, 1991 to 2017 and year-to-date notifications for 2018. Available at: (accessed 3 May 2018).
  2. Immunisation Coalition. Pneumococcal disease. Available at: (accessed 14 May 2018).
  3. Australian Government. Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition. 4.13 Pneumococcal disease. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2018).
  4. Yin JL et al. Med J Aust 2017;207(9):396-400.
  5. Victoria State Government. Better Health Channel. Pneumococcal disease. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2018).
  6. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Pneumococcal disease. Symptoms and complications. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2018).
  7. Australian Government. Department of Health. Pneumococcal disease. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2018).
  8. National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance. Adult vaccination fact sheet. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2018).
  9. Victoria State Government. Better Health Channel. Meningococcal disease. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2018).

SPANZ.SAPAS.18.04.0149 - Date of preparation May 2018