1. Health

Questions and answers about bacterial meningitis

Published Dec. 13, 2013

What is bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the membranes — called meninges — surrounding the brain and spinal cord. If not detected and treated promptly, it can cause brain damage, hearing loss and death.

What causes it? How contagious is it?

It can be caused by several pathogens, including some strep and flu bacteria. It can be contagious among people in close contact, such as through coughing, sneezing and kissing. However, it is not nearly as contagious as colds and flu. One pathogen that can lead to meningitis, Listeria monocytogenes, can be contracted by eating contaminated food. Healthy people can carry bacteria that cause meningitis with no ill effects.

How common is it?

It's fairly rare. In the United States, about 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis, including 500 deaths, occur each year. Viral meningitis is more common, but generally less serious.

Who's at most risk?

Infants are considered at greatest risk of bacterial meningitis, though it can strike at any age. People with certain diseases, medications and surgical procedures that may weaken the immune system also are at greater risk. So are college students and military members living in close quarters.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

They can include:

• Flu-like symptoms

• High fever.

• Severe, persistent headaches.

• A stiff and painful neck, especially when you try to touch your chin to your chest.

• Vomiting.

• Discomfort in bright lights.

• Drowsiness or trouble staying awake.

• Lack of appetite.

• Later symptoms can include rash, seizure, and coma.

What should I do if I notice these symptoms?

Call a doctor. If you can't reach a doctor, go to the nearest emergency room right away. If you don't have transportation, call 911.

How can I prevent meningitis?

The most effective means is to complete the recommended vaccination schedule. There are vaccines for three types of bacteria that can cause meningitis: Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus), Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus), and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). However, there are more pathogens that cause the disease. The Hib vaccine is routinely given to infants but other vaccines depend on age or risk factors.

A doctor may prescribe antibiotics if you have been in close contact with someone who has had some kinds of bacterial meningitis.

As with colds and flu, regular hand washing and avoiding contact with people who are sick can also help prevent meningitis.

Who should get vaccinated?

There are two meningococcal vaccines available in the U.S., known as MPSV4 and MCV4). The CDC recommends vaccination for:

• Adolescents ages 11-18

• Unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated first-year college students living in residence halls, military recruits or microbiologists with occupational exposure.

• People who travel to countries where meningitis is common.

• People with certain health conditions that put them at higher risk, or who have been exposed to someone with the disease.

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Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,


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