Pneumococcal Pneumonia

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part a shows a micrograph of lancet (football) shaped cells, some of which have a clear ring around them. Part b shows two dumbbell shaped blue cells on an orange background.
(a) This micrograph of Streptococcus pneumoniae grown from a blood culture shows the characteristic lancet-shaped diplococcal morphology. (b) A colorized scanning electron micrograph of S. pneumoniae. (credit a: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit b: modification of work by Janice Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

The most common cause of community-acquired bacterial pneumonia is Streptococcus pneumoniae. This gram-positive, alpha hemolytic streptococcus is commonly found as part of the normal microbiota of the human respiratory tract. The cells tend to be somewhat lancet-shaped and typically appear as pairs. The pneumococci initially colonize the bronchioles of the lungs. Eventually, the infection spreads to the alveoli, where the microbe’s polysaccharide capsule interferes with phagocytic clearance. Other virulence factors include autolysins like Lyt A, which degrade the microbial cell wall, resulting in cell lysis and the release of cytoplasmic virulence factors. One of these factors, pneumolysin O, is important in disease progression; this pore-forming protein damages host cells, promotes bacterial adherence, and enhances pro-inflammatory cytokine production. The resulting inflammatory response causes the alveoli to fill with exudate rich in neutrophils and red blood cells. As a consequence, infected individuals develop a productive cough with bloody sputum.

Pneumococci can be presumptively identified by their distinctive gram-positive, lancet-shaped cell morphology and diplococcal arrangement. In blood agar cultures, the organism demonstrates alpha hemolytic colonies that are autolytic after 24 to 48 hours. In addition, S. pneumoniae is extremely sensitive to optochin and colonies are rapidly destroyed by the addition of 10% solution of sodium deoxycholate. All clinical pneumococcal isolates are serotyped using the quellung reaction with typing antisera produced by the CDC. Positive quellung reactions are considered definitive identification of pneumococci.

Antibiotics remain the mainstay treatment for pneumococci. β-Lactams like penicillin are the first-line drugs, but resistance to β-lactams is a growing problem. When β-lactam resistance is a concern, macrolides and fluoroquinolones may be prescribed. However, S. pneumoniae resistance to macrolides and fluoroquinolones is increasing as well, limiting the therapeutic options for some infections. There are currently two pneumococcal vaccines available: pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) and pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23). These are generally given to the most vulnerable populations of individuals: children younger than 2 years and adults older than 65 years.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: