Pneumococcal Disease

Many people have never heard of pneumococcal [noo-muh-kok-uhl] disease. But if you have asthma, you should know how to protect yourself against it. Having asthma makes you more likely to this get this type of infection, which can lead to serious illness and even death.

Pneumococcal disease is a serious bacterial infection. It can cause:

  • Pneumonia
  • Brain and spinal cord infection (meningitis)
  • Bloodstream infections (sepsis)
  • Ear infections

Anyone can get it, but people with asthma are at high risk for serious complications.1

Pneumococal Disease prevention

What Happens When You Get Pneumococcal Disease?

Pneumococcal disease can lead to many different illnesses. What illness you get depends on where the bacteria goes in your body. If the bacteria spreads to your lungs, it can cause pneumonia. The bacteria can also get into the bloodstream and cause sepsis. If the bacteria gets to the central nervous system, it can cause meningitis. All forms of pneumococcal disease are very dangerous.2-4

Why Are People With Asthma at Risk?

For people with asthma, pneumococcal disease can be very serious. But doctors don’t fully understand why. It may be because airways with asthma are different. It may make the lungs more likely to be affected by pneumococcal bacteria and infection. Corticosteroids, a common asthma medicine, may also increase your risk because they suppress your immune system.5-7 This is why health care providers say you should get the vaccine for pneumococcal disease if you have asthma.1

How Is Pneumococcal Disease Spread?

The bacteria live in your throat. You can spread it through coughing, sneezing or direct contact, like kissing. Not everyone who carries the bacteria gets sick from it. That means it is possible to catch it from someone who seems to be healthy.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Pneumococcal Disease?

Every person may have different symptoms. But they usually appear suddenly. You may have a combination of the following symptoms if you get pneumonia, sepsis or meningitis:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Cough (you may cough up greenish or yellow mucus)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Sweating and chills
  • Stiff neck
  • Disorientation (confusion)

Call your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms.

Can You Prevent Pneumococcal Disease?

The best way you can avoid getting pneumococcal disease is to get a vaccine. People at risk should get the vaccine, such as:

  • Children younger than 2 years old
  • Adults 65 and older
  • Adults with weak immune systems
  • Adults who smoke
  • Anyone with a chronic disease, such as asthma or other lung diseases

The pneumococcal vaccine is safe and effective.1 There are two types available. Adults with certain medical conditions may need both vaccines. This includes adults with asthma who take corticosteroids. Medicare and most insurance companies pay for the vaccine. Talk to your doctor about which one is right for you.

If you have had a pneumococcal infection in the past, it will not keep you from getting it again. You still need the vaccine.  

Do Kids With Asthma Need the Pneumococcal Vaccine?

The pneumococcal vaccine has been recommended for all U.S. infants and young children since 2000. It has worked well protecting infants from the infection.8

Does the Flu Vaccine Protect You From Respiratory Infection?

The flu (influenza) can affect the respiratory tract and cause inflammation. This can increase your risk of pneumococcal infection. This infection can happen at any time of year, even in the summer months. People with asthma should get vaccinated against the flu every year even if you got the pneumococcal vaccine.

How Many Doses of the Pneumococcal Vaccine Do I Need?

Most adults only need the vaccine once. But your doctor may recommend you get another shot if it’s been a while since you have the vaccine or for other reasons. Ask your doctor how often you need the shot.

You do not have to get the pneumococcal vaccine every year, like the flu shot. You may only need to get it once and get a booster shot a few years later. Find out what your doctor recommends.

My Doctor Didn’t Tell Me About the Vaccination. Is It New?

The CDC began recommending adults with asthma get the pneumococcal vaccination in 2008. In 2012, the CDC started recommending adults with certain medical conditions or who take medicines like corticosteroids get the second vaccine. If your doctor hasn’t mentioned the vaccine, ask about it as soon as possible.

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asthma and pneumococal disease handout


1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated recommendations for prevention of invasive pneumococcal disease among adults using the 23-valent pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23). MMWR. 2010;59: 1102-1106.

2. File TM. Community-acquired pneumonia. The Lancet. 2003; 362:1991-2001.

3. Tsai JC, Griffin MR, Nuorti JP, Grijalva CG. Changing epidemiology of pneumococcal meningitis after the introduction of pneumococcal conjugate vaccine in the United States. Clin Infect Dis. 2008; 46:1664-1672.

4. Atkinson W, Wolfe S, Hamborsky J and McIntyre L, eds. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The Pink Book. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases. 11th ed. Washington, DC: Public Health Foundation 2009.

5. Hartert TV. Are persons with asthma at increased risk of pneumococcal infections, and can we prevent them? J Allergy Clin Immunol 2008 Oct; 122(4):724-5.

6. Lee TA, Weaver FM, Weiss KB. Impact of pneumococcal vaccination on pneumonia rates in patients with COPD and asthma. J Gen Intern Med 2007 Jan; 22(1):62-7.

7. Talbot TR, Hartert TV, Mitchel E, Halasa NB, Arbogast PG, Poehling KA, et al. Asthma as a risk factor for invasive pneumococcal disease. New England Journal of Medicine 2005; 352(20):2082-90.

8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Vaccines and Preventable Diseases: Pneumococcal Disease-Q&A. April 2010.

Medical Review February 2017.