Vaccinations: Pneumococcal

What is pneumococcal disease? 

Pneumococcal disease is a general term used to categorize infections caused by a type of bacteria called streptococcus pneumoniae. Such infections include: 

  • Pneumococcal pneumonia causes fever, cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain. 
  • Pneumococcal meningitis causes stiff neck, fever, mental confusion/disorientation and visual sensitivity to light. Though rare (less than 1 case per 100,000 people each year), pneumococcal meningitis is fatal in about 1 out of 10 cases in children and can also lead to other health problems, including brain damage and hearing loss. 
  • Pneumococcal bacteremia causes joint pain and chills and may cause some of the same symptoms as pneumonia and meningitis. 
  • Otitis media causes ear pain, a red or swollen eardrum, and sometimes sleeplessness, fever, and irritability. 

Pneumococcal bacteria spreads from person to person through close contact, typically through respiratory droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth (from a cough or sneeze, for example). In addition, people, especially children, can carry the bacteria in their throats without being ill, which means they may be contagious without knowing it.

Types of pneumococcal vaccines

There are two kinds of pneumococcal vaccines available in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends pneumococcal conjugate vaccine for all children younger than 2 years old. 

  • Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13 or Prevnar 13). Recommended for all babies and children younger than 2 years old. All adults 65 or older. People 2 to 64 years old with certain medical conditions. 
  • Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23). Recommended for all adults 65 years or older. People 2 to 64 years  old with certain medical conditions. Adults 19 to 64 years old who smoke cigarettes. 

Why should I vaccinate my child? 

The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine protects against 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria. Before the vaccine, there were about 700 cases of meningitis, 13,000 bloodstream infections, and 200 deaths from pneumococcal disease each year among children younger than 5 years old. 

Parents should note that pneumonia, ear infections, and meningitis have multiple causes, as a result, the pneumococcal vaccine is not a blanket protection against these illnesses. For example, your child may still get ear infections even if his vaccines are up to date. However, studies have shown that children who are vaccinated have fewer ear infections and require tubes in their ears less often than those who are not vaccinated. 

How many doses will my child receive? 

The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine is typically given as a series of four shots (in the thigh).

When is the vaccine given? 

The CDC recommends that children receive doses of the pneumococcal vaccine at the following ages: 

  • 2 months 
  • 4 months 
  • 6 months 
  • 12–15 months 

Children who miss their shots at these ages should still get the vaccine, according to the CDC. The number of doses, as well as the intervals between doses, will depend on the child’s age. Parents should consult their child’s health care provider for details.

What are the possible side effects? 

Side effects include swelling at the injection site (reported in about 1 out of 3 children) and fever (about 1 out of 3 had a mild fever and about 1 in 20 had a fever greater than 102.2 F). About 50 percent of children experience drowsiness, loss of appetite, or redness or tenderness at the injection site. Parents can apply a cool, wet washcloth to the sore area and give acetaminophen or ibuprofen (as directed by your child’s physician) for pain and fever. If symptoms persist, parents should contact their child’s health care provider.

When should I call a doctor? 

Though the CDC says serious reactions associated with this vaccine are rare, parents should immediately alert their child’s health care provider or call 911 if the child experiences difficulty breathing, wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, a fast heartbeat or dizziness. Such reactions would likely occur within a few minutes to a few hours of receiving the vaccination. Parents should also contact their child’s health care provider if the child has a high fever or displays unusual behavior.

Last updated September 22, 2021

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