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The Healthy Living Magazine

What Is Pneumococcal Disease?

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It’s a big name for illness caused by a tiny bacterium. Any illness caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae is a pneumococcal disease. These illnesses can be mild, such as ear and sinus infections, but they can also be very serious. You have probably heard of the two most dangerous pneumococcal diseases: pneumonia and meningitis. Pneumonia is an infection that inflames the lungs, filling them with liquid and making it hard to breathe. Meningitis is an infection that inflames the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Both are extremely dangerous, and can lead to sepsis, a life-threatening response to infection in the body.

Streptococcus pneumoniae live in your nose and throat, and often don’t make you sick. But if your immune system is weakened, the bacteria can spread and cause harm.

Anyone can get a pneumococcal disease, but people with diabetes are at higher risk. The good news is that there are simple ways to prevent it. Talk to your doctor about your risks for developing pneumococcal disease, and what you can do to minimize them.

How Does Pneumococcal Disease Spread?

The bacteria that cause pneumococcal diseases are spread through person-to-person contact of bodily fluids—mostly from being coughed on. Hugging, kissing, or being very near someone with the bacteria can put you at risk. Young children are particularly likely to spread the bacteria to seniors or people with weakened immune systems. “When they throw their arms around grandpa and give him a big kiss, they can also give what’s back in their throats to grandpa,” says William Schaffner, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor of preventive medicine in the Department of Health Policy and professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University. And since grandpa is older, he’s more likely to get sick—especially if he is a smoker, has a chronic lung disease or diabetes.