Meningococcal Meningitis

About This Disease

Meningococcal meningitis is a life-threatening infection of the protective covering of the brain and spinal cord. It is caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacteria.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms include sudden onset of fever, headache, vomiting, neck stiffness, lethargy, irritability, and rash. Up to 20% of those infected will die, and many others may have permanent hearing loss, mental retardation, loss of limbs, or other debilitating effects.

The symptoms usually start 3 to 4 days after exposure to the bacteria but can range from 2 to 10 days.


  • Meningococcal meningitis is transmitted by direct contact with droplets from the nose and throat of infected individuals. It is not spread by casual contact or by breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been. Approximately 10 to 25% of the population carries N. meningitidis in their nose and throat without developing symptoms of the disease. People can transmit this disease without ever having shown symptoms.
  • Cases of this disease are considered contagious until 24 hours after effective antibiotic treatment has been implemented.
  • Infected individuals should not attend work or school until they have recovered and have been treated with antibiotics.


All suspected persons with the disease should see a doctor as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment.


Doctor prescribed antibiotic treatment is required. People with symptoms of meningitis should see a doctor as soon as possible. In addition, those who have been in close contact with an infected person (including household members, playmates at day care centers, etc.), may need preventive treatment. Generally, people who have had only limited, indirect contact (such as students in a classroom or co-workers), do not need preventive therapy.

Risk in Hawaii


There were previously just two meningococcal vaccines available in the United States and a new one was licensed in February, 2010. These vaccines protect against four of the five different types of meningococcal disease. Two of the vaccines are for those aged 11 to 55 years, and the other for those aged 2 to 10 years or 56 years and older. It is recommended that college students living in dormitories, laboratory workers, military recruits, those living or traveling to areas where meningococcal disease is endemic, and those with weakened immune systems make sure they are protected with vaccination, as they are at a higher risk of developing the disease.

Additional Resources

Information for Clinicians