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. It can lead to serious illness and even death.
Pneumococcal disease is a serious bacterial infection. It can cause:
Anyone can get it, but people with asthma are at high risk for serious complications.1
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
Each year, at least 1.7 million adults in America develop sepsis.5 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines sepsis as the body’s extreme response to an infection. Sepsis happens when an infection you already have − in your skin, lungs, urinary tract, or somewhere else − triggers a chain reaction throughout your body. It is life-threatening. If you don’t get treatment right away, sepsis can quickly lead to tissue damage, organ failure, or death. Sepsis is a medical emergency that needs immediate treatment. If you have an infection that is not getting better or is getting worse, call your doctor right away.
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.6-8 This is why health care providers say you should get the vaccine for pneumococcal disease if you have asthma.1
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.
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:
Call your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms.
The best way you can avoid getting pneumococcal disease is to get a vaccine. People at risk should get the shot, such as:
The pneumococcal vaccine is safe and effective.1 There are two types available. Adults with certain medical conditions may need both shots. This includes adults with asthma who take corticosteroids. Medicare and most insurance companies pay for the shot. 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 shot.
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.9
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 a booster shot a few years later. Find out what your doctor recommends.
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.
Pneumococcal disease is not the only cause of pneumonia. Viruses, fungi, and other bacteria can cause pneumonia too. Some of the most common causes of pneumonia include:
Less often, illnesses like whooping cough, measles, and chickenpox can cause pneumonia. Vaccines are available for these illnesses. Getting these vaccines – along with the flu, COVID-19, and pneumococcal vaccines – can help you reduce the chances you get pneumonia. Pneumonia can be serious. About 3 million Americans go to the emergency department each year for pneumonia. Around 50,000 Americans die each year from pneumonia.
The flu (influenza) can affect the respiratory tract (lungs, nose, throat) and cause swelling. This can increase your risk of pneumococcal infection (like pneumonia). The best way to protect yourself from flu is to get a flu shot every year. Get your shot at the beginning of flu season, which usually starts in October and ends in May.
Medical Review: April 2021 by Sarah Goff, MD, PhD
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.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Sepsis: Patient Information. Aug. 2020.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Vaccines and Preventable Diseases: Pneumococcal Disease-Q&A. April 2010.