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As we move into the month of January, many of us are spending less time outside and more time indoors. With this shift comes the opportunity for more germs to spread as people gather together in close quarters. Because this has been an especially challenging winter for respiratory illnesses, we thought it would be a good time to revisit the topic of Pneumococcal disease again – what it is, how you can identify if you or your family members are at risk, and what you can do to help prevent it. 

Pneumococcal Disease – What is It and What Causes It?

The term “Pneumococcal disease” covers a variety of illnesses that are caused by pneumococcal bacteria.  This includes things such as ear infections and sinus infections as well as more serious infections such as pneumonia (infection of the lungs), meningitis (infection of the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord), and Bacteremia (infection of the blood). 

Pneumococcal bacteria spread from person to person through coughing, sneezing, and close contact. People can carry the bacteria in their nose and throat without being sick and spread the bacteria to others.  

Which People are at Risk for Pneumococcal Disease?

While it is possible for anyone to get pneumococcal disease, members of certain age groups and people with specific risk factors are more likely to develop the disease:

Children Under 5 Years Old

-Adults 65 Years Or Older

-People Who Smoke Cigarettes

-People With Certain Medical Conditions Or Other Risk Factors Including:

  •  Alcoholism 
  • Cerebrospinal fluid leak (a health problem where fluid surrounding and protecting the brain and spinal cord leaks)
  • Chronic heart, lung, kidney, or liver disease 
  • Cochlear implant (a small electronic device that is surgically implanted to help people with severe hearing loss be able to hear) 
  • Diabetes 
  • HIV infection, cancer, solid organ transplant, or another condition or taking medicine that weakens the immune system
  • Nephrotic syndrome 
  • Sickle cell disease, a damaged spleen, or no spleen

While many pneumococcal infections end up being mild, some can have serious long-term effects, such as brain damage or hearing loss. More serious infections caused by pneumococcal bacteria such as Meningitis, bacteremia, and pneumonia can sometimes be fatal. The risk of serious illness or death is greatest for older adults.  

What Can People in High-Risk Groups do to Protect Themselves? 

If you or a family member are at a greater risk for pneumococcal disease, the best thing you can do is get vaccinated! There are currently two types of vaccines available that help protect against pneumococcal disease and the CDC recommends pneumococcal vaccination for all children younger than 5 years old and all adults 65 years or older. If you or a loved one fit into these age ranges or one of the risk categories mentioned above, talk to your doctor or vaccine provider about getting vaccinated.  

Getting the influenza (flu) vaccine every year and making sure that you are up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccines also helps protect against pneumococcal disease. It is well known that people who get sick with the flu have an increased chance of developing pneumococcal disease and current research on COVID-19 suggests that people with severe COVID infections are more likely to end up with pneumococcal bacterial infections such as pneumonia.

For more information about pneumococcal disease and the pneumococcal vaccine visit:

https://www.cdc.gov/pneumococcal/

Pneumococcal Disease in Adults and the Vaccines to Prevent It

Pneumococcal Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know

** Image Source: National Foundation for Infectious Diseases