About Bacterial Meningitis

About Bacterial Meningitis

Meningitis is caused by the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord known as the meninges. Meningitis may develop in response to a number of causes, usually bacteria or viruses, also injury, cancer or certain drugs.

Meningitis that is caused by bacteria like Neisseria meningitides and Streptococcus pneumonia is often severe and can be life-threatening. Young adults living in group housing, such as on a college campus or in military barracks, are at risk for bacterial meningitis.

How is it transmitted?

Bacterial meningitis can be transmitted through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (e.g., kissing). Fortunately, most of the bacteria that cause meningitis are not as contagious as diseases like the common cold or the flu. The bacteria are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been.

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 status (confusion)

The symptoms of bacterial meningitis can appear quickly or over several days. Typically they develop within 3-7 days after exposure. Please call Student Health Service at 215.746.3535, press 1 to speak with a nurse, if you think you may have been in contact with someone who has bacterial meningitis and you develop these signs.


Bacterial meningitis can be treated effectively with antibiotics. It is important that treatment be started as soon as possible. Appropriate antibiotic treatment of the most common types of bacterial meningitis should reduce the risk of dying from meningitis to below 15%, although the risk remains higher among young infants and the elderly.


Vaccination is the most effective way to protect yourself against bacterial meningitis.  Penn requires all full-time students less than or equal to the age 21 to be vaccinated.  Antibiotics may be recommended for close contacts of people with meningococcal meningitis.

Maintaining healthy habits, like frequent hand washing, not smoking and avoiding cigarette smoke, getting plenty of rest, and not coming into close contact with people who are sick, can also help.

For more information, vist CDC.gov.

In the news


Princeton University has been experiencing a meningococcal meningitis outbreak, with 6 confirmed cases since March 2013. On Sunday 11/10/13, a 7th possible case was identified. Penn has not seen any cases of bacterial meningitis this semester. All Penn students who are 21 or younger, and who live on campus, are required to get the meningococcal meningitis vaccine. Student Health is always vigilant for the possibility of meningitis in students. For more information on bacterial meningitis, click here.