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Any child can get meningococcal meningitis—though some children face an increased risk.

Meningococcal meningitis can strike quickly and become serious, possibly fatal, within 24 hours.

With a 1 in 10 risk of death for infected people, it's important for parents to get a better understanding of the disease in order to help protect their children.

Check out the FAQs to learn more about meningococcal disease, meningitis, vaccinations, and how you can help protect your loved ones.

Meningococcal meningitis is a type of bacterial meningitis and causes meningococcal disease. The bacterium that causes the disease is Neisseria meningitidis (N. meningitidis)—also known as meningococcus (muh-ning-goh-KOK-us). It’s a rare but potentially life-threatening condition that leads to inflammation of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.

The disease is most common in infants less than 1 year of age and teens/young adults, particularly those who are 16–23 years of age.

Infants younger
than 1

16–23 year-olds

Yes. Meningitis can be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, etc. Meningococcal meningitis is one of several different types of bacterial meningitis.

Meningococcal meningitis is less common, but very serious. It leads to an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. The disease can progress quickly and be fatal within 24 hours.

The 5 vaccine-preventable groups of meningococcal meningitis are A, C, W, Y and B.

Any child can get meningococcal meningitis. However, infants younger than 1 year of age, children with weakened immune systems, and those without spleens are at increased risk.

Infants younger
than 1

People without
a spleen

People with weakened
immune systems

The bacteria that cause meningococcal meningitis live within the nose and throat. One in 10 people carry the bacteria with no signs or symptoms of disease. In rare cases, the bacteria can invade the body and lead to meningococcal disease. However, those who carry the bacteria can spread the bacteria easily from person to person through close contact, such as kissing, coughing, or sneezing.

Everyday behaviors can increase the risk of getting meningococcal meningitis, especially for infants and teens/adolescents, including:

  • Living in close quarters
  • Coughing & sneezing
  • Smoking & secondhand smoke
  • Kissing
  • Sharing drinks & eating utensils


& sneezing

Living in
close quarters

Sharing drinks
& eating utensils

Smoking &
secondhand smoke

Meningococcal meningitis usually starts with a sudden fever, headache, and stiff neck. Early symptoms may appear mild—similar to those of a cold or the flu. The disease can progress quickly and can be fatal, sometimes within 24 hours.

Since newborns and infants who are sick with meningococcal meningitis are unable to express how they feel, parents should be on the lookout for signs and symptoms, which can also include:

  • High-pitched screaming
  • Arching of the back
  • Skin rashes
  • Vomiting and poor feeding

Recognizing symptoms and understanding risk factors are great first steps. However, vaccination is the most effective way to help protect your child from meningococcal meningitis.

There are 2 vaccines that help protect against the 5 vaccine-preventable groups of meningococcal meningitis. Meningitis ACWY vaccines have been available since the 1980s, but Meningitis B vaccines have been available in the US only since late 2014.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends Meningitis ACWY vaccination for all adolescents 11-12 years of age, with a booster at age 16 before the peak in increased risk.

The CDC recommends Meningitis B vaccination for persons 10 years and older in certain groups who are at increased risk for Meningitis B disease. In addition, the CDC says that Meningitis B vaccines may be administered to young adults who are 16–23 years old, but preferably to those who are 16–18 years old.

Talk to your child’s healthcare provider to make sure your child or teen is up-to-date on the recommended meningococcal meningitis vaccinations.

Visit our adult page to learn more about Meningitis ACWY and Meningitis B vaccination for teens and young adults.