Meningococcal Disease

Meningococcal disease is an illness caused by a type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. This is a serious illness and can include meningitis and bloodstream infections (septicemia).

Meningitis is a medical term meaning "inflammation of the meninges," which are membranes enclosing the brain and spinal cord.    

Viruses, parasites, fungal organisms, other bacterias and non-infectious medical conditions can cause meningitis.

Neisseria meningitidis is one of many bacteria causing meningitis:

  • This bacteria causes illness, irregularly, either as an isolated case or a large disease outbreak (epidemic).
  • There are 9 types of N. meningitidis.
  • Types A, B, and C cause more than 90 percent of meningococcal disease globally.

Meningitis Versus Meningococcal Disease: There IS a Difference.

Having meningitis doesn’t always mean you have meningococcal disease. And having meningococcal disease doesn’t necessarily mean you have meningitis.

How Meningococcal Disease Spreads

Humans are the only known reservoir for N. meningitidis.

The organism is spread primarily through intimate contact with the nasopharyngeal secretions (nose and throat) of a person with the organism.

The types of intimate contact, include:

  • Kissing,
  • Coughing,
  • Mouth to mouth resuscitation,
  • Sharing eating utensils,
  • Sharing smoking materials, and
  • Sharing drinks (beverages).

N. meningitidis is extremely sensitive to drying and cooling, and rarely survives outside the body for more than a few minutes.

For example: If the organism is coughed onto a desk and remains there for a minute or longer, it will dry out and die.


Symptoms include:

  • An intense headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Stiff neck
  • Sometimes accompanied by a rash
  • Delirium and coma can occur in severe cases.

Treatment and Prevention

Antimicrobial agents (medicine) to which the organisms are sensitive are usually prescribed for N. meningitidis patients.

  • Dosage and treatment length vary.
  • A vaccine is available to people who are at a higher risk of getting N. meningitidis.
  • Close contacts of a person with the organism are normally given a course of antibiotics:
    • If exposed to a sick individual with N. meningitidis, close contacts should be treated as soon as possible (less than 24 hours) to prevent infection.
    • Unlike viral meningitis, antibiotics can be prescribed to treat and prevent bacterial meningitis, like N. meningitidis. These may include: ciprofloxacin and ceftriaxone, as they are effective in the prevention of N. meningitidis.

In an outbreak, health officials sometimes vaccinate people who are most at risk of getting the disease.

What is Bacterial meningitis? What are the causes and vaccines?

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 disabilities.


Several types of bacteria can cause meningitis. Leading causes in the United States include

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • Group B Streptococcus
  • Neisseria meningitidis
  • Haemophilus influenzae
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Escherichia coli

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, and death.

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

Get Vaccinated for Bacterial Meningitis

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
  • Bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine helps protect against tuberculosis disease, but is not widely used in the United States

More Bacterial Meningitis | CDC