Bacterial meningitis is serious. Some people with the infection die and death can occur in as little as
a few hours. However, most people recover from bacterial meningitis. Those who do
recover can have permanent disabilities, such as brain damage, hearing loss, and learning
Several types of bacteria can cause meningitis. Leading causes in the United States
Group B Streptococcus
Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis or TB, is a less common cause of bacterial meningitis (called TB meningitis).
Many of these bacteria can also be associated with another serious illness, sepsis. Sepsis is the body’s extreme response to infection. It is a life-threatening medical
emergency. Sepsis happens when an infection triggers a chain reaction throughout your
body. Without timely treatment, sepsis can quickly lead to tissue damage, organ failure,
Some causes of bacterial meningitis are more likely to affect certain age groups:
Newborns: Group B Streptococcus, S. pneumoniae, L. monocytogenes, E. coli
Babies and young children: S. pneumoniae, N. meningitidis, H. influenzae, group B Streptococcus, M. tuberculosis
Teens and young adults: N. meningitidis, S. pneumoniae
Older adults: S. pneumoniae, N. meningitidis, H. influenzae, group B Streptococcus, L. monocytogenes
Certain factors increase a person’s risk for getting bacterial meningitis. These risk
Age: Babies are at increased risk for bacterial meningitis compared to people in other
age groups. However, people of any age can develop bacterial meningitis. See section
above for which bacteria more commonly affect which age groups.
Group setting: Infectious diseases tend to spread where large groups of people gather. For example,
college campuses have reported outbreaks of meningococcal disease, caused by N. meningitidis.
Certain medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, medications, and surgical procedures put people at increased
risk for meningitis. For example, having an HIV infection or a cerebrospinal fluid
leak, or not having a spleen can increase a person’s risk for several types of bacterial
Working with meningitis-causing pathogens: Microbiologists routinely exposed to meningitis-causing bacteria are at increased
risk for meningitis.
Travel: Travelers may be at increased risk for meningococcal disease, caused by N. meningitidis,
if they travel to certain places, such as: The meningitis belt in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly during the dry season Mecca during the annual Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage
In many countries, TB is much more common than in the United States. Travelers should
avoid close contact or prolonged time with known TB patients in crowded, enclosed
environments (for example, clinics, hospitals, prisons, or homeless shelters).
Certain germs that cause bacterial meningitis, such as L. monocytogenes, can spread
through food. But most of these germs spread from one person to another.
How people spread the germs often depends on the type of bacteria. It is also important
to know that people can have these bacteria in or on their bodies without being sick.
These people are “carriers.” Most carriers never become sick, but can still spread
the bacteria to others.
Here are some of the most common examples of how people spread each type of bacteria
to each other:
Group B Streptococcus and E. coli: Mothers can pass these bacteria to their babies during birth.
H. influenzae, M. tuberculosis, and S. pneumoniae: People spread these bacteria by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with
others, who breathe in the bacteria.
N. meningitidis: People spread these bacteria by sharing respiratory or throat secretions (saliva
or spit). This typically occurs during close (coughing or kissing) or lengthy (living
E. coli: People can get these bacteria by eating food prepared by people who did not wash
their hands well after using the toilet.
People usually get sick from E. coli and L. monocytogenes by eating contaminated food.
If a doctor suspects meningitis, they will collect samples of blood or cerebrospinal
fluid (fluid near the spinal cord). A laboratory will test the samples to see what
is causing the infection. Knowing the specific cause of meningitis helps doctors treat
Doctors treat bacterial meningitis with a number of antibiotics. It is important to start treatment as soon as possible.
Vaccines are the most effective way to protect against certain types of bacterial
meningitis. There are vaccines for 4 types of bacteria that can cause meningitis:
Meningococcal vaccines help protect against N. meningitidis
Pneumococcal vaccines help protect against S. pneumoniae
Haemophilus influenzae serotype b (Hib) vaccines help protect against Hib
Make sure you and your child are vaccinated on schedule.
Like with any vaccine, these vaccines do not work 100% of the time. The vaccines also
do not protect against infections from all the types (strains) of each of these bacteria.
For these reasons, there is still a chance vaccinated people can develop bacterial
When someone has bacterial meningitis, a doctor may recommend antibiotics to help
prevent people around the patient from getting sick. Doctors call this prophylaxis.
CDC recommends prophylaxis for:
Close contacts of someone with meningitis caused by N. meningitidis
Household members of someone with a serious Hib infection when the household includes
one or more people at increased risk of Hib based on age, vaccination status, and/or
Doctors or local health departments recommend who should get prophylaxis.
You can also help protect yourself and others from bacterial meningitis and other
health problems by maintaining healthy habits:
Don’t smoke and avoid cigarette smoke as much as possible
Get plenty of rest
Avoid close contact with people who are sick
Wash your hands often with soap and water (use hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze (use your upper sleeve
or elbow if a tissue isn’t available)
These healthy habits are especially important for people at increased risk for disease,
People with weak immune systems
People without a spleen or a spleen that doesn’t work the way it should
Meningitis symptoms include sudden onset of:
There are often other symptoms, such as:
Photophobia (eyes being more sensitive to light)
Altered mental status (confusion)
Newborns and babies may not have, or it may be difficult to notice the classic symptoms
listed above. Instead, babies may
Be slow or inactive
Have a bulging fontanelle (the “soft spot” on a baby’s head)
Have abnormal reflexes
If you think your baby or child has any of these symptoms, call the doctor right away.
Typically, symptoms of bacterial meningitis develop within 3 to 7 days after exposure;
note, this is not true for TB meningitis, which can develop much later after exposure
to the bacteria.
People with bacterial meningitis can have seizures, go into a coma, and even die.
For this reason, anyone who thinks they may have meningitis should see a doctor as soon as possible.