Fact Sheet: Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is very serious and can be deadly. Here is some information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the disease.

What is Bacterial Meningitis?

Meningitis is the inflammation of brain and spinal cord membranes, typically caused by an infection.

There are several types of bacteria that can cause meningitis. Leading causes in the United States include:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae

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  • Group B Streptococcus
  • Neisseria meningitidis
  • Haemophilus influenzae
  • Listeria monocytogenes

Death can occur in as little as a few hours if not treated promptly. Most people recover from meningitis. However, permanent disabilities (such as brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disabilities) can result from the infection.

What are the Signs?

In Children & Adults

Meningitis symptoms include sudden onset of fever, headache, and stiff neck. There are often other symptoms, such as:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Photophobia (increased sensitivity to light)
  • Altered mental status (confusion)

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis can appear quickly or over several days. Typically they develop within 3 to 7 days after exposure

Later symptoms of bacterial meningitis can be very serious (e.g., seizures, coma). For this reason, the CDC says anyone who thinks they may have meningitis should see a doctor as soon as possible.

In Newborns & Babies

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In newborns and babies, the meningitis symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to notice.

The baby may:

  • Be Irritable
  • Vomit/have diarrhea
  • Feed poorly
  • Appear to be slow or inactive

Other signs from the Meningitis Research Foundation include:

  • Tense or bulging soft spot
  • High fever (Note: could be normal or low in babies under 3 months)
  • Very sleepy/difficult to wake up
  • Breathing fast/difficulty breathing
  • Extreme shivering
  • “Pin prick” rash/marks or purple bruises anywhere on the body
  • Unusual grunting sounds or high pitched or moaning cry
  • Blotchy skin, getting paler or turning blue
  • A stiff body with jerky movements or else floppy and lifeless
  • Cold hands and feet.

IMPORTANT: not every baby will get all these symptoms and symptoms can appear in any order.

TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS: If you think your baby or child has any of these symptoms, call the doctor right away.

More on bacterial meningitis in infants »

Carter’s Story: Shannon Hegy shares her baby’s experience with bacterial meningitis »

How Does it Spread?

Generally, the germs that cause bacterial meningitis spread from one person to another. Certain germs, such as Listeria monocytogenes, can spread through food.

How people spread the germs often depends on the type of bacteria. The CDC said it is also important to know that people can carry 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:

  • Mothers can pass group B Streptococcus and Escherichia coli to their babies during labor and birth.

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  • People spread Hib and Streptococcus pneumoniae by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who breathe in the bacteria.
  • People spread Neisseria meningitidis by sharing respiratory or throat secretions (saliva or spit). This typically occurs during close (coughing or kissing) or lengthy (living in the same household) contact.
  • People can get Escherichia coli by eating food prepared by people who did not wash their hands well after using the toilet.
  • People usually get sick from Escherichia coli and Listeria monocytogenes by eating contaminated food.

Can it be Prevented?

The CDC said the most effective way to protect you and your child against certain types of bacterial meningitis is to get vaccinated. There are vaccines for three types of bacteria that can cause meningitis:

  • Neisseria meningitidis
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • Hib

Make sure you and your child are vaccinated on schedule.

Like with any vaccine, the CDC says the vaccines that protect against these bacteria are not 100% effective. The vaccines also do not protect against all the types (strains) of each bacteria. For these reasons, the agency said there is still a chance you can develop bacterial meningitis even if you were vaccinated.

CLICK: CDC Vaccination Schedule for children birth through 6 years old »