Meningitis, bacterial (Meningococcal Disease)

Meningitis, bacterial (Meningococcal Disease) is a severe bacterial infection of the bloodstream and/or meninges (a thin lining covering the brain and spinal cord) caused by meningococcus bacteria.

Bacterial meningitis is usually severe. While most people with meningitis recover, it can cause serious complications, such as brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disabilities.

At-Risk Populations

Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but it is more common in infants and children. For some young people, such as college students living in dormitories, there is an increased risk of meningococcal disease. Every year in the United States approximately 2,500 people are infected and 300 die from the disease.


Anyone experiencing high fever with a new skin rash or other symptoms of meningitis, such as headache or stiff neck, should be examined by a healthcare provider immediately. Early treatment of meningitis is critical, as the infection can quickly become life-threatening.

Symptoms may appear two to 10 days after exposure, but usually within five days, and may include:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Rash
  • Body aches/joint pain
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Confusion

How It Spreads

Meningitis spreads from person to person through direct close contact with the respiratory and throat secretions of someone with the bacteria. This includes coughing, sneezing, sharing drinks, kissing, and being in close proximity for an extended period of time. To limit the spread of illness, you should avoid sharing cups, cosmetics, toothbrushes, smoking materials or anything that comes in contact with your mouth.



The most effective way to protect against bacterial meningitis is to complete the recommended childhood and adolescent immunization schedule. (more)

People are vaccinated against most strains of meningitis when they are adolescents, but serogroup B (also called meningitis B) is not included in the routine vaccine given. However, there is a new meningitis vaccine that protects against meningitis B. It is approved for people from 10 to 25 years old. (more)

Healthy Habits

Do NOT share anything that comes in contact with the mouth including:

  • Water bottles
  • Mouth guards
  • Face masks
  • Towels
  • Drinking glasses, beverages from punch bowls, etc.
  • Eating utensils
  • Cosmetics
  • Toothbrushes
  • Smoking materials
  • Kisses
  • Food or drink from a common source such as a punch bowl

Do NOT cough or sneeze into another person’s face. Cough or sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue.

Maintaining a smoke-free lifestyle, avoiding second-hand smoke, getting plenty of rest, and not coming into close contact with people who are sick can also help. This is especially important for young infants, the elderly, and people with a weakened immune system, since they are at increased risk for severe disease. (more)

Preventative medication for close contacts of meningitis patients

Antibiotics may be recommended by a doctor or public health official for close contacts of people with meningococcal meningitis. Examples of close contacts in a college campus setting often include students who live in the same dorm, or others who have kissed, shared eating utensils or food, drinks, or cigarettes with the ill student.

Testing & Diagnosis

Early diagnosis and treatment are very important. If meningococcal disease is suspected, samples of blood or fluid near the spine are collected and sent to a laboratory for testing. It is important to know if it is meningococcal disease because the severity of illness and the treatment will change depending on the cause. In the case of meningococcal disease, antibiotics can help prevent severe illness and reduce the chances a close contact will also develop disease. (more)


Most people with meningococcal disease are hospitalized and treated with antibiotics. Depending on the severity of the infection, other treatments may also be necessary. (more)