Meningitis 101: Commonly Asked Questions


Meningitis is a disease that may affect infants, children and adults. It is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection that invades the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) and inflames the meninges (thin membranes that surround the brain and the spinal cord).

Meningococcal disease is the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children between the ages of 2 and 18 years. According to information gathered from The Center for Vaccine Awareness and Research at Texas Children’s Hospital, approximately 1,500 people living in the United Sates are diagnosed with meningococcal disease annually, and sadly, 10 percent die and 1 in 5 have permanent sequelae.

In 2012, Texas Children’s Hospital shared a story about meningitis survivor, Jamie Schanbaum, in a video titled, “Facing Meningitis.”  In this video, Schanbaum, who had both of her legs amputated after contracting meningitis as a college sophomore in 2008, partnered with Texas Children’s to produce this video in efforts to convey the importance of young people receiving the meningococcal meningitis vaccine before going to college.  This important video also features the parents and sister of Nicolis Williams, a Texas A&M University student who died in early 2011 from the disease during his junior year.  Now with over 28,000 views on YouTube since its posting on Nov. 30, 2012, this video formed part of a project where Texas Children’s uses real life stories of families affected by vaccine-preventable diseases to communicate the importance of vaccines.

Here is important information regarding the causes, risk factors, symptoms and treatments for meningitis and information on how some forms of meningitis can be prevented.

1. What is meningitis?
Meningitis is inflammation of the tissues surrounding/lining the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is generally caused by either a bacteria or a virus.

2. What are the “hallmark” signs of the disease?
The classic signs of meningitis are a bad headache, accompanied by a stiff neck and sensitivity to light. Children will usually have high fever. Some may even have seizures. In certain types of meningitis, especially the meningococcal form, there may also be a rash which sometimes comes on before the headache, although it may occur at any time. This rash may take various forms, but for meningococcal meningitis, the rash may look like very small red spots or bruises that don’t fade when you press them.

3. How do you contract the disease?
The bacterial form of meningitis is spread through contact with secretions from the respiratory tract (mouth, nose, etc.). Examples of how it could spread include: if someone who carries the bacteria causing meningitis (even if they are not sick) coughs in your face, kisses you or uses the same cup. The viral form may also be spread through respiratory secretions and some forms are spread through contact with feces of someone who is carrying the virus.

4. Is it contagious?
Yes, meningitis is contagious.

5. Do parents need to be concerned?
If your child has a high fever and some of the signs listed above, they immediately should be checked by a health care provider because children can get very sick with meningitis and there can be serious complications. Some people may even die from their illness. If it is bacterial meningitis, giving antibiotics promptly is very important to help children make a full recovery. Thankfully some, but not all, forms of bacterial meningitis may be prevented by vaccines. Vaccines that prevent meningitis caused by the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae type b (HIB) and some types of Pneumococcus are given to young infants and toddlers. A vaccine that prevents 4 types of the Meningococcus bacteria (MCV4) is given to adolescents at age 11 or 12 years and again at 16 years. A new vaccine that prevents another type of meningococcal meningitis (meningococcal serogroup b or MenB) is available. This vaccine may be given to adolescents starting at age 16 to 18 years if their health care provider and you decide it is right for them. Parents should discuss this with your adolescent’s provider.

6. Why is MCV4 a mandatory vaccine for most incoming college students?
The meningococcal vaccine MCV4 that is recommended for all adolescents at age 11 to 12and   again at age 16, is required by Texas law for most incoming college students. This is because we know that incoming college students – especially those who live in dorms – have a higher risk than others of contracting meningococcal disease.  The meningococcal B vaccine is not required for all college students, but parents should discuss with their adolescent’s physician if they should get this vaccine to further reduce their risk of getting the disease. While meningococcal disease is uncommon, it can be devastating.

7. Are there different signs of the disease in newborns versus older children?Because newborns are unable to complain of a headache, meningitis may be more difficult to detect in this age group. So, if parents have any concerns it is always best to contact your health care provider. Some signs to look out for include: fever or if your baby is very cold, especially at the hands or feet; grunting; a baby who is listless and difficult to wake; poor feeding; funny movements; and bulging of the soft spot on the top of the head, as well as the rash.  Newborns also are at risk for other types of bacterial meningitis which do not affect older children and adults.

8. When should parents see a doctor?
Parents should see a doctor if your children show any of the signs above. Even if your child’s symptoms don’t fit completely into the picture described above, you should always see or call your provider if you have any concerns for further advice and guidance.

9. What are treatments?
The treatment for bacterial meningitis is antibiotics and the sooner these are given the better. Some children with serious illness may require other treatments to support their body as they fight the disease. Some forms of viral meningitis do not require treatment.

10. What is the prognosis for those diagnosed with the disease?
It depends on the type of meningitis. For bacterial meningitis, a lot depends on how quickly it is diagnosed and treated, but approximately 10 percent of patients with meningococcal meningitis die and up to 20 percent are left with complications. That’s why protecting your children by getting them vaccinated is so important.  There is no treatment available for most forms of viral meningitis but luckily, most children with viral meningitis make a full recovery.

11. Are there ways to avoid getting meningitis?
Vaccination is the best way to protect you and your family from bacterial meningitis. Other sensible precautions, like avoiding sharing utensils, etc. may also be useful. In addition, smoking has been shown to increase the risk of getting meningococcal meningitis.


About Dr. Mary Healy, Infectious Disease Specialist

I am the Director of Vaccinology and Maternal Immunization for the Center for Vaccine Awareness and Research at Texas Children’s Hospital.

I'm also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine.

Posted in 101, Infectious Disease, Vaccines

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