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Pneumococcal Infections and COVID: Double the Trouble?

Pneumococcal Infections and COVID: Double the Trouble?

While the mass roll-out of vaccines has put the world on the way to overcoming COVID-19, there is still a concern about the link between pneumococcal infections and COVID-19. Can COVID-19 and pneumococcal infections occur together? How can people avoid them? Learn more here.

Pneumococcal Infections and COVID: Can a COVID-19 Infection Cause a Pneumococcal Co-Infection?

As children, we were all taught to wait our turn and have good manners. Unfortunately, pathogens don’t play by these rules. In general, any viral respiratory infection or other illnesses can increase the risk of bacterial infections. Therefore, a viral infection such as COVID-19 can happen together with a pneumococcal infection — diseases caused by the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, such as pneumonia1.

Why Does This Occur?

Typically, a weakened or compromised immune system makes people more vulnerable to infections. Lack of sleep, poor diet, and high stress levels are just a few things that can weaken our immune system. People with chronic diseases such as diabetes or cancer are often considered immunocompromised2.

Exposure to viruses and bacteria happens through contact with contaminated objects, air, or infected individuals. When someone with a weakened immune system is exposed to these things, pathogens have an easier time getting into the body and cause an infection.

When a certain pathogen enters the body, it makes it easier for other pathogens to follow — much like leaving a door open. This is why health organizations encourage precautions such as social distancing and mask-wearing. These measures not only help prevent the spread of disease but protect infected individuals from getting more sick3.

Find out if you are at risk for pneumococcal infections by answering this short quiz:

Before COVID-19 existed, influenza and pneumococcal infections were the duo to watch out for1. However, now that COVID-19 has taken the stage, how does it relate to S. pneumoniae infections? What is the connection between pneumococcal infections and COVID?

While available data on COVID-19 and pneumococcal co-infections show a lower number of cases compared to influenza and pneumococcal co-infections, it is associated with higher fatalities4.

In addition, there is evidence5 6 that shows those who had the pneumonia vaccine experienced some benefits against severe COVID-19 infection.

In a study by Lewnard et al, the authors observed that among the adults aged 65 or older who received the pneumonia vaccine, there was an association with lower risk of COVID-19 diagnosis, hospitalization and death. Preliminary data from an observational study by Pawlowski et al had similar findings between receiving the pneumonia vaccine and lower COVID-19 rates.

While these studies are still inconclusive, there may be some hope against serious infection for those who can’t get their COVID-19 vaccines just yet.

How Is Regular Pneumonia Different From COVID-19 Pneumonia?

While a weakened immune system can allow viruses and bacteria a window of opportunity to attack our body, that doesn’t mean they go undetected for long. A common symptom such as a cough occurs partly because our body is trying to prevent a particle or pathogen. It can be hard to determine the culprit of an illness like pneumonia unless a physician diagnoses you.

Common symptoms of bacterial pneumonia7 and COVID-19 pneumonia8 include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing

The key to differentiating between pneumococcal pneumonia and COVID-19 pneumonia is by looking at progression of the illness and other non-respiratory signs and symptoms.

In the case of the COVID-19 virus, symptoms may appear 2 to 14 days after exposure. Aside from the common symptoms of pneumonia, those with COVID-19 may also experience fatigue, diarrhea, and loss of taste or smell. In addition, many report their cough to be dry or non-productive.

For pneumococcal pneumonia, chest pain is common along with confusion in older adults. The incubation period is much shorter than COVID-19, with symptoms showing within 1 to 3 days after exposure. Productive cough with phlegm or sputum is more common with bacterial pneumonia7.

In terms of treatment, COVID-19 pneumonia and regular pneumonia are very different. Viral infections cannot be treated with antibiotics, while bacterial pneumonia can.

Key Takeaway

Since the threat of COVID-19 first appeared, scientists have been working hard to make vaccines available to all9. The pneumonia vaccine has been available for decades and is one of the routine vaccines for children. It is also effective at preventing pneumococcal infections in those with chronic diseases or compromised immunity.

Worried about pneumococcal infections and COVID happening together? Use our risk assessment tool today to find out if you are at risk.

Learn more about pneumonia here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


1 Epidemiology, Co-Infections, and Outcomes of Viral Pneumonia in Adults

An Observational Cohort Study https://journals.lww.com/md-journal/Fulltext/2015/12150/Epidemiology,_Co_Infections,_and_Outcomes_of_Viral.68.aspx Accessed May 11, 2021

2 Overview of Immunodeficiency Disorders https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/immune-disorders/immunodeficiency-disorders/overview-of-immunodeficiency-disorders Accessed May 11, 2021

3 Impact of Wearing Masks, Hand Hygiene, and Social Distancing on Influenza, Enterovirus, and All-Cause Pneumonia During the Coronavirus Pandemic: Retrospective National Epidemiological Surveillance Study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7471891/ Accessed May 11, 2021

4 Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Invasive Pneumococcal Disease and Risk of Pneumococcal Coinfection with SARS-CoV-2: prospective national cohort study, England https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7717180/ Accessed May 11, 2021

5 Joseph A Lewnard, Katia J Bruxvoort, Heidi Fischer, Vennis X Hong, Lindsay R Grant, Luis Jódar, Bradford D Gessner, Sara Y Tartof, Prevention of COVID-19 among older adults receiving pneumococcal conjugate vaccine suggests interactions between Streptococcus pneumoniae and SARS-CoV-2 in the respiratory tract, The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 2021; jiab128, https://doi.org/10.1093/infdis/jiab128 Accessed May 11, 2021

6  Exploratory analysis of immunization records highlights decreased SARS-CoV-2 rates in individuals with recent non-COVID-19 vaccinations https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.27.20161976v2.full.pdf Accessed May 11, 2021

7 Pneumococcal Disease https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/pneumo.html Accessed May 11, 2021

8 Symptoms of COVID-19 https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html Accessed May 11, 2021

9 Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccines Explained https://www.fda.gov/vaccines-blood-biologics/vaccines/emergency-use-authorization-vaccines-explained Accessed May 11, 2021


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Written by Stephanie Nicole Nera, RPh, PharmD Updated 2 days ago
Medically reviewed by Erika Joanna Villanueva Caperonce, M.D.