NHS Choices

Why is the pneumococcal vaccine needed?

Pneumococcal infections, at their worst, can cause permanent severe brain damage, or even kill. They tend to be most serious in children, older people and people with certain long-term health conditions.

That's why these groups are offered a pneumococcal vaccination on the NHS. It's a simple and safe vaccine that can prevent pneumococcal infections.

How are pneumococcal infections spread?

Pneumococcal infections are easily spread by close or prolonged contact with someone who has the infection.

The pneumococcal bacteria are present in tiny droplets that are expelled when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes. If you breathe in these droplets, you may also be infected.

You can also become infected by touching any droplets that might have landed on a surface such as a table, and then transferring them to your face.

Once the bacteria have entered your body – usually through your nose or throat – they can either lie dormant (which means they do not cause you any harm, but they could still be passed onto someone else), or they can multiply and cause health problems such as pneumonia.

For pneumococcal infections, the incubation period (the time between catching an infection and showing symptoms) is thought to be around one to three days.

Types of pneumococcal infections

Pneumococcal infections are usually one of the following types:

  • non-invasive pneumococcal infections – these occur outside the major organs and tend to be less serious, such as otitis media (a middle ear infection)
  • invasive pneumococcal infections – these occur inside a major organ or in the blood and tend to be more serious, for example, meningitis (an infection of the brain)

Every year in England and Wales, there are 5,000 to 6,000 serious pneumococcal infections. It is estimated that in England, around 3,400 people over the age of 65 die in hospital every year from pneumococcal infections.

Last Updated: 01/04/2017 09:00:00