About meningitis

Meningitis is an infection that often causes severe swelling of the meninges, or tissue around the brain and spinal cord. Common symptoms in anyone over the age of 2 may include high fever, headache and stiff neck. For infants, these symptoms may be absent or difficult to detect. Other infant symptoms include irritability, vomiting, or poor feeding behavior.1

The 2 most common types of meningitis are bacterial and viral.1

Bacterial meningitis can be life-threatening and requires urgent medical attention.

Viral meningitis is rarely fatal. People with viral meningitis usually recover within 7 to 10 days.

Since the symptoms of viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis are often very similar, it is important to seek urgent medical attention right away if you think you or your child may have meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis: 3 different causes.

The 3 types of bacteria that most often cause bacterial meningitis are Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), Streptococcus pneumoniae, and Neisseria meningitidis.2

  • Before the 1990s, Hib was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis. Today, routine vaccination against Hib has greatly reduced its occurrence1
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae is commonly called pneumococcal bacteria. Since routine pneumococcal vaccination of infants began in the US in 2000, rates of pneumococcal disease caused by the 7 serogroups included in the vaccine have fallen by 99%3
  • Neisseria meningitidis is commonly known as meningococcal bacteria. It remains a leading cause of bacterial meningitis in the US2

In this site, we focus on 2 types of infection caused by meningococcal bacteria: meningococcal meningitis and meningococcemia, collectively known as meningococcal disease. About 1 in 10 people who contract these infections will die from them, even with appropriate treatment. Learn more about these rare but potentially devastating conditions.

  • Meningococcal disease

    Neisseria meningitidis bacteria, more commonly known as meningococcal bacteria, can make a person severely ill by causing 2 types of infection:

    Meningococcal meningitis -- an infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, called the meninges

    Meningococcemia -- a serious blood infection (also known as septicemia).

    Together, meningococcal meningitis and meningococcemia are known as meningococcal disease.

    Both of these infections should always be viewed as medical emergencies.

    Meningococcal bacteria live naturally in the back of the nose and throat in about 10% to 25% of the population.4 Most of these carriers don't become sick, but they can unknowingly spread the infection. This can happen by the exchange of respiratory secretions, throat secretions, or saliva from coughing and sneezing and through other ordinary daily contact.5

    Meningococcal meningitis and meningococcemia are fast-moving diseases. While rare, they can cause death in as little as 24 to 48 hours from the start of symptoms.4

    Learn how a vaccination offers the best protection against meningococcal disease.

  • Meningococcal meningitis is rare,
    but it can be serious

    • It can potentially kill an otherwise healthy person within 24 to 48 hours after the first symptoms appear2,4
    • Each year an estimated 1,400 to 2,800 cases of meningococcal meningitis occur in the US, and 1 in 10 of those who contract it die7
    • Of those who survive, 1 in 5 suffer serious, long-term consequences such as brain damage, loss of arms or legs, or hearing loss2
    • It is estimated that 10% to 25% of people carry meningococcal bacteria at any given time and can unknowingly spread it to others4,5
    • Meningococcal meningitis and meningococcemia can affect anyone, at any age. However, infants, teenagers, and young adults are all at an increased risk8,9 Currently, there is no meningococcal disease vaccine approved for infants.
    • Many cases of meningococcal meningitis may be vaccine preventable10
  • What are the warning signs?2,4

    Meningococcal meningitis is often misdiagnosed because early symptoms are similar to the flu, including headache that comes on quickly, fever, and neck stiffness. The disease can progress quickly, and may also include nausea, vomiting, confusion, a sensitivity to light, and a rash. Once symptoms begin, immediate medical treatment is critical. Even then, long-lasting side effects or death can occur.

    Learn more about the symptoms for meningococcal meningitis and the differences between symptoms in infants versus older children and adults.

  • What are the effects?2,7

    Because meningococcal disease is so rare, it can be hard to identify. And by the time it's finally diagnosed, it can be too late. About 1 in 10 of those who contract meningococcal disease die, even with appropriate treatment.3 And survivors can suffer severe consequences including:2,7

    • Loss of arms or legs
    • Hearing loss
    • Brain damage
  • How meningococcal meningitis spreads

    The bacteria that cause meningococcal meningitis can spread from person to person.5 Meningococcal bacteria live naturally in the back of the nose and throat in about 10% to 25% of the population.4 Most of these carriers build up natural defenses or antibodies that help prevent them from getting sick, but they can unknowingly pass the bacteria to others. This can happen by the prolonged exposure to respiratory secretions, throat secretions, or saliva through ordinary daily contact, such as5:

    • Coughing
    • Sharing utensils, water bottles, or drinking glasses
    • Kissing

    While meningococcal meningitis is rare, everyone is at risk. That’s why it is important to know the ordinary, everyday behaviors that increase the risk of spreading the disease.  Avoid sharing objects like drinking glasses, utensils, and water bottles. And remember, the best protection from the disease is through vaccination.8

  Geography of meningitis Next

Vaccination may not prevent meningococcal disease in all individuals. Like all vaccines, meningococcal vaccines may have side effects. Persons should consult their healthcare providers to determine if they have a condition that precludes them from receiving a vaccination or to learn more about meningococcal vaccination.


  1. Meningitis: meningitis questions & answers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/about/faq.html. Accessed October 18, 2010.
  2. Poland GA. Prevention of meningococcal disease: current use of polysaccharide and conjugate vaccines. Clin Infect Dis. 2010;50(suppl 2):S45-S53.
  3. Pneumococcal disease: Q&A. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/pneumo/dis-faqs.htm. Accessed October 17, 2010.
  4. Pelton SI. Meningococcal disease awareness: clinical and epidemiological factors affecting prevention and management in adolescents. J Adolesc Health. 2010;46:S9-S15.
  5. Granoff DM, Harrison LH, Borrow R. Meningococcal vaccines. In: Plotkin SA, Orenstein WA, Offit PA, eds. Vaccines. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2008:399–434.
  6. Thompson MJ, Ninis N, Perera R, et al. Clinical recognition of meningococcal disease in children and adolescents. Lancet. 2006;367:397–403.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevention and control of meningococcal disease: recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR Recomm Rep. 2005;54(RR-7):1–21.
  8. Rosenstein NE, Perkins BA, Stephens DS, Popovic T, Hughes JM. Meningococcal disease. N Engl J Med. 2001;344:1378–1388.
  9. Yeh SH, Lieberman JM. Update on adolescent immunization: pertussis, meningococcus, HPV, and the future. Cleve Clin J Med. 2007;74:714–727.
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningococcal disease and college students: recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR Recomm Rep. 2000;49(RR-7):13–20.

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