What is Bacterial Meningitis?

Meningococcal infection is caused by several strains of a particular kind of bacteria called Neisseria meningitides. The disease primarily manifests itself as bacterial meningitis, which is an infection of the fluid which surrounds the brain and the spinal cord. The bacteria can also cause life-threatening blood infections (septicemia).

Bacterial meningitis is a rare, but extremely serious, potentially fatal disease. It can progress very rapidly, sometimes causing death less than 24 hours after symptoms first begin.

10-15% of people who get meningococcal disease will die in spite of treatment with antibiotics. 11-19% of survivors will lose fingers, toes, arms, or legs; become deaf; have neurological problems; develop mental impairments; or suffer seizures or strokes.

1,400 to 3,000 people in the U.S. get meningococcal disease each year, including approximately 100 to 125 college students.

What are the risk factors?

Factors that can increase your risk of bacterial meningitis include:

  • Age
    • Infants are at higher risk for bacterial meningitis than people in other age groups. However, people of any age are at risk. See the table above for which pathogens more commonly affect which age groups.
  • Community setting
    • Infectious diseases tend to spread more quickly where larger groups of people gather together. College students living in dormitories and military personnel are at increased risk for meningococcal meningitis.
  • Certain medical conditions
    • There are certain diseases, medications, and surgical procedures that may weaken the immune system or increase risk of meningitis in other ways.
  • Working with meningitis-causing pathogens
    • Microbiologists who are routinely exposed to meningitis-causing pathogens are at increased risk.
  • Travel
    • Travelers to the meningitis belt in sub-Saharan Africa may be at risk for meningococcal meningitis, particularly during the dry season. Also at risk for meningococcal meningitis are travelers to Mecca during the annual Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage.

How is bacterial meningitis transmitted?

The bacteria that cause the disease are found in discharges from the nose and throat. Fortunately, bacterial meningitis is not transmitted as easily as colds and flu.

Those who have more intimate or prolonged contact with an infected person, however, are at higher risk of getting the disease. For example:

  • Friends, roommates, partners, and children who could have been exposed to droplets from the infected person’s coughs or sneezes
  • Those who have kissed the infected person or who have shared eating utensils, drinks, food, cigarettes, or other smoking implements with them

Research shows that students living in dormitories and residence halls are at higher risk for getting meningococcal disease than other college students.

What are the signs & symptoms of bacterial meningitis?

It usually takes three to four days for a person to develop symptoms after they have been exposed, with a range of 2 to 10 days. Symptoms include:

  • Severe headache
  • High fever
  • Stiff neck and/or back
  • Rash or purple blotches on the skin
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion, sleepiness, or lethargy
  • Seizures

Depending upon the way the disease affects a person, they may not have all of these symptoms. For example, blood infections may not result in severe headaches. And bacterial meningitis may not cause rashes or purple blotches.
If you think you might have meningococcal disease symptoms, contact your healthcare provider right away.

How is bacterial meningitis diagnosed?

If meningitis is suspected, samples of blood or cerebrospinal fluid (near the spinal cord) are collected and sent to the laboratory for testing. It is important to know the specific cause of meningitis because that helps doctors understand how to treat the disease, and possibly how bad it will get. In the case of bacterial meningitis, antibiotics can help prevent severe illness and reduce the spread of infection from person to person.

If bacteria are present, they can often be grown (cultured). Growing the bacteria in the laboratory is important for confirming the presence of bacteria, identifying the specific type of bacteria that is causing the infection, and deciding which antibiotic will work best. Other tests can sometimes find and identify the bacteria if the cultures do not.

How is bacterial meningitis treated?

Bacterial meningitis can be treated effectively with antibiotics. It is important that treatment be started as soon as possible. Appropriate antibiotic treatment of the most common types of bacterial meningitis should reduce the risk of dying from meningitis to below 15%, although the risk remains higher among young infants and the elderly.

How can I protect myself?

The most effective way to protect you is to get a meningitis vaccination.  The vaccine is recommended for all first-year college students living in dense conditions such as residence halls and other group-residence settings.

Because meningococcal disease rates begin to climb in early adolescence and peak in 15 to 20 year olds, the vaccine is now recommended for those entering high school, 11 to 12 year old pre-adolescent health care visit. Don’t assume, however, that you got the vaccine when you were 11 or 12.

Maintaining healthy habits, like not smoking and avoiding cigarette 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, or for those with a weakened immune system, since they are at increased risk for severe disease.