Most cases of meningitis are either viral or bacterial. Viral meningitis is the less severe of the two and usually clears up on its own without causing lasting damage. There is no vaccine to prevent viral meningitis.
Bacterial meningitis is more serious and can even be life threatening. No single vaccine protects against meningitis itself, but several vaccines can help prevent infection from bacteria that cause meningitis. Some of these vaccines can be given as part of a regular vaccination schedule.
Children and teens are at higher risk of infection than other age groups.
Haemophilus Influenza Type B Vaccine (Hib)
Haemophilus influence type b (Hib) is a bacterial infection that tends to attack young children. According to the National Meningitis Association, it was the leading cause of meningitis in children under age five in the United States before the vaccine came along. The vaccine is given to babies and children older than two months.
This vaccine is injected into muscle. Some children experience low-grade fever following the vaccine. Minor soreness at the injection site usually clears up quickly.
The Hib vaccine may interact with certain medications, including:
- blood thinners
- immune system suppressants
- drugs to treat cancer
Adults who have no spleen and those with sickle cell disease or AIDS should consider getting the Hib vaccine.
Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine (PCV7)
The vaccine is injected into muscle. It’s routinely given to children under two years of age in the United States. It’s also used for older children with cancer, chronic heart disease, or lung-related problems. In addition to meningitis, pneumococcus bacteria can cause pneumonia.
The vaccine may not work if you’re taking steroids, blood thinners, immune suppressants, or certain chemotherapy drugs.
Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine (PPSV)
Pneumococcal bacteria can cause infection in the sinuses and inner ear. It can also cause infection in the blood, lungs, and brain.
This vaccine is recommended for children and adults who are at risk of pneumococcal bacterial infection. This includes children with chronic heart disease, diabetes, sickle cell anemia, or compromised immune systems. It’s also recommended for adults over 65.
Meningococcal Conjugate Vaccine (MCV4)
Brand Names: Menactra, Menveo
This vaccine is injected into the muscle. It protects against four types of bacteria: meningococcus A, C, Y, and W-135. It’s recommended for children aged 11 or 12, with a booster at 16. It may also be given at age 13 to 15, with a booster between 16 and 18. No booster is needed when the vaccine is administered to someone over age 16.
Younger children considered at risk of bacterial meningitis may also receive this vaccine. This would include children with other medical problems or who plan to travel to a region where there’s an increased risk of infection.
This vaccine can also be used for people who have not been vaccinated before if there’s an outbreak of bacterial meningitis. It can be used in people up to age 55.
Your physician may recommend MCV4 if you’re in a particularly high-risk group, including:
- first-year college students living in a dorm (some colleges require it)
- military recruits
- people who have certain specific immunity defects, a poorly functioning spleen, or no spleen
- travelers to countries where bacterial meningitis rates are higher
- microbiologists who may be exposed to infection on the job
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), MCV4 has not been adequately studied in pregnant women. Certain medications used to treat cancer, arthritis, or organ transplants, can reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine.
Meningococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine (MPSV4)
Brand Name: Menomune
This is generally recommended for people over age 55. Tell your doctor about pre-existing medical conditions and medications you take before getting the vaccine.
Brand Name: MenHibRix
This vaccine provides protection against Hib and Neisseria meningitides serogroups C and Y. It’s injected into muscle in four doses, generally at two months, four months, six months, and between 12 and 15 months.
Side Effects and Risks
While these vaccines can’t completely prevent meningitis, they can substantially cut risk — especially in children, who are most vulnerable to these bacterial infections.
Any vaccine can cause soreness or irritation at the injection site. It usually clears up within a few days. Some people experience a low-grade fever following a Hib or meningococcal vaccination.
There’s always a risk of a bad reaction to any vaccine. Serious allergic reactions are rare and generally happen within a few hours. Symptoms include:
- high fever
- dizziness, weakness, feeling faint
- swelling of the throat or face
- rapid heartbeat
- breathing problems
- behavioral changes
Seek medical help immediately if you have these symptoms after a vaccination.
You should not receive a meningitis vaccine booster if you’ve previously had a bad allergic reaction to one or if you’re allergic to any of the ingredients. If you’re sick, you should wait until your illness passes before getting a vaccine. Tell your doctor if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have a chronic illness. Inform your doctor if you’ve had Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Ask your doctor which vaccines are best for you and your children.
You can get most vaccines at your doctor’s office or your local health department. Some schools and pharmacies also offer immunization programs. Find a vaccination location in your state by visiting U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "Vaccine Finder."
Health insurance typically covers most immunizations. New health plans must fully cover preventive services under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Grandfathered plans created prior to March 23, 2010 may or may not cover all preventive care. Check with your provider before scheduling a vaccine.
The federally run program Vaccines for Children may help if you don’t have health insurance for your children. They provide vaccines to doctors who serve uninsured children. The Federally Qualified Health Centers or Rural Health Centers may be able to help if you have health insurance for your children, but it doesn’t cover vaccinations.
You can find more information about these programs through the CDC at www.cdc.gov, or you can contact your local health department for more information.