Bacterial Meningitis

By: C. J. Fields

What is bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection that causes inflammation of the meninges, which is a layer of tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord. Viruses and bacteria can cause meningitis. Meningitis caused by bacteria is usually severe. While most people with meningitis can recover, it can cause serious complications, such as brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disabilities. In the United States, about 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis, including 500 deaths, occurred each year between 2003–2007 (CDC, 2012).

What causes bacterial meningitis?

Common causes of bacterial meningitis vary by age group:

  • Newborn causes: Group B Streptococcus, Eschrichia coli, and Listeria monocytogenes
  • Infants and Children: Streptococcus pneumonia, Neisseria meningitides, Haemophilus influenza type b
  • Adolescents and Young Adults: Neisseria meningitides, Streptococcus pneumonia
  • Older Adults: Streptococcus pneumonia, Neisseria meningitides, Listeria monocytogenes

Transmission of bacterial meningitis causing germs

The germs that cause bacterial meningitis can be communicable. Some bacteria can be exchanged orally via bodily fluids (e.g., kissing). However, most bacteria that can causes meningitis are difficult to transmit. These bacteria cannot be spread through casual contact or through the air. Some meningitis-causing bacteria cannot be spread from human-to-human, but can cause disease if the person has a heightened risk factor (e.g., a weak immune system or head trauma). Bacterial meningitis can develop from eating food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. Prolonged contact with a sick person in the same household or childcare center, or if there is direct contact with another person’s oral secretions (such as a boyfriend or girlfriend), is likely to result in person-to-person transmission of germs that can lead to bacterial meningitis. Consult a physician if you think you have been exposed to someone with meningitis.

Signs & Symptoms 

Meningitis infection may show up in a person by a sudden onset of fever, headache, and stiff neck. It will often have other symptoms, such as:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Increased sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • Altered mental state (confusion) The symptoms of bacterial meningitis can appear quickly or over several days.

Typically symptoms manifest 3-7 days after exposure. Newborns and infants, do not always display the classic symptoms of bacterial meningitis. Infants may however “appear to be slow or inactive (lack of alertness), irritable, vomiting or feeding poorly.” “In young infants, doctors may look for a bulging fontanelle (soft spot on infant’s head) or abnormal reflexes, which can also be signs of meningitis.” If you think your infant has any of these symptoms, call the doctor or clinic right away (CDC, 2012). 

Treatment & Effects

Bacterial meningitis can lead to death and must be medically treated as soon as possible. Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics, typically administered during hospitalization. Possible permanent effects associated with a bacterial meningitis infection include brain damage, hearing loss, vision loss, and intellectual disability. Bacterial meningitis can be fatal if it is not treated promptly.


Until recently, the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in children was Haemophilus influenzae b (Hib), which has been almost eradicated due to a vaccine that was developed at Boston Children's Hospital in 1990. The most effective way to protect you and your child against certain types of bacterial meningitis is to complete the recommended vaccine schedule (CDC, 2012).


  • Boston Children's Hospital (2011). Bacterial meningitis.
  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2012). Bacterial meningitis.