What is the difference between meningitis and septicemia?

Meningitis means swelling of the meninges, the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Septicemia occurs when the infection enters the blood stream. Meningitis and septicemia can occur together or separately.  They are caused by many kinds of invading germs, but meningococcal disease is a very stealthy illness and is difficult to diagnose. It is also the most common and most dangerous type of meningitis. Neisseria meningitidis is the causative organism for meningococcal disease which includes meningococcal meningitis and meningococcemia.

How prevalent is meningococcal meningitis?

Meningococcal meningitis affects about 3,000 people in the United States each year about 1 in every 100,000 people. The number of meningococcal cases in those aged 15 to 24 have nearly doubled in the last 10 years.

If meningitis is deadly, how come I‘ve never heard about it?

Because deaths from meningococcal meningitis are relatively rare compared to deaths from other infections, it often does not get the attention it deserves. It is a very serious and deadly disease though.


Are meningitis symptoms easily recognizable?

NO! Early symptoms often mimic the flu or a very bad cold. Adolescents frequently avoid seeking treatment when they feel sick. Learning to recognize the early symptoms of meningitis are important because immediate evaluation by a doctor can save your life.

After being exposed to an infected person, when do I start showing symptoms?

From the time the bacteria get into a person’s mouth or nose, it may take from two to ten days for the person to become sick. The average time is three to four days. 

Should I get treated with antibiotics right away after a friend is diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis?

YES! If you were in close prolonged contact with a friend who has become ill with meningococcal meningitis, you should contact your doctor. He can determine if you had significant contact that requires prophylactic antibiotics.


How do people get meningitis?

People get meningitis when there’s direct contact with an infected person. The disease is transmitted when they share saliva as in kissing, sharing food & drinks, sharing cigarettes & lip gloss, etc. You can also get meningitis when a person next to you sneezes or coughs while you have your mouth open. Part of the saliva and mucus from an infected person or a healthy carrier goes into your mouth. From the nose and throat of people, the bacteria can then infect the fluid that circulates in the brain and spinal cord or can invade the blood.

Is meningitis contagious?

YES! Some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious. The bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions as in kissing and sneezing or coughing at someone with their mouth open. Sometimes the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcal meningitis/meningococcemia) can spread to other people who have had close prolonged contact with an infected person. People in the same household, day-care center, or anyone with direct contact with a patient’s oral secretions would be considered at increased risk of getting the infection. 

Can I get bacterial meningitis by being in the same room as an infected person?

NO! The bacteria that cause meningitis are not airborne and are not as contagious as the common cold or flu. 

Can I get meningitis by drinking from a water fountain after another person has used it?

It is a good practice NOT to drink from the same spout where someone else has just finished drinking. 

How can a healthy athletic person contract such a deadly disease?

We really do not understand yet why even the healthiest appearing and most athletic people can become infected. It likely relates to how their immune systems respond to the invading organism. This is why preventive measures are so important.

What is considered a close contact?

A close contact is defined as a person who lived with someone infected with meningococcal meningitis including household members or roommates in dormitories. It also includes those who directly exchanged oral secretions or came in contact with respiratory secretions of an infected person. People who qualify as close contacts of a person with meningococcal meningitis should receive prophylactic antibiotics to prevent them from getting the disease.

 Can I be a carrier and not know it?

YES! Meningococcal bacteria are around us all the time. Even healthy people may have the bacteria in their nose or throat and not get sick from it. Researchers are unsure why the bacteria attack some people while most of the population is safe and unaffected.


Is meningitis easy to diagnose?

NO! Meningococcal meningitis is often misdiagnosed as something less serious because early symptoms are similar to the flu. Stop and think. Is this the worst case of the flu I have ever had? If meningitis is suspected, see a doctor or get to a hospital emergency room immediately. The diagnosis of meningococcal meningitis can be confirmed from the patient’s clinical history, presenting signs and symptoms, analysis of spinal fluid and blood cultures.

How is bacterial meningitis treated?

Early antibiotic treatment can reduce the risk of dying to less than 15%. The risk though is higher in the elderly. However, because meningococcal disease can progress so rapidly, early treatment does not guarantee a full recovery. Health care intervention must be immediate and aggressive to prevent death and/or serious aftereffects. 

Will I know the results right away from the CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) test?

NO! Although it may take 1-2 days to determine the cause of the meningitis, the doctor will initiate treatment if he or she thinks you have bacterial meningitis.


Who are at an increased risk of getting meningococcal meningitis?

People at increased risk are college freshmen living in dormitories, microbiologists who are routinely exposed to meningococcal bacteria, military recruits, anyone who has a damaged spleen or whose spleen has been removed. Also at risk are people who suffer from an immune system disorder. Individuals who are traveling to the countries which have had or are experiencing an outbreak of meningococcal disease are also at an increased risk.

Once vaccinated, am I 100% protected?

NO! About 85% of meningococcal infections are vaccine-preventable. The vaccines do not protect you from type B.

When should I get vaccinated?

CDC recommends the vaccine for 11 years old and up to 55.

Is the shot going to hurt?

YES! It has to be given in the upper arm muscle.

Are there side effects from the shot?

Side effects are mild but may include fever, redness or soreness at injection site.

To who are cases reported to?

All cases of meningitis and septicemia are reported to the Public Health Department who will decide what needs to be done to protect the community. They make sure that anyone at especially increased risk of meningococcal disease is contacted and offered antibiotics. This is to kill the bacteria that cause the disease and help stop it from spreading. They will also advise schools, colleges, employment or nurseries dealing with cases.