Meningitis is a serious condition in which an infection leads to swelling of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can be mistaken early on as a head cold or the flu due to symptoms like high fever and severe headache. But when left undiagnosed or untreated, meningitis can lead to severe complications. It can even be life-threatening.

The good news? There’s a way to protect your teen from bacterial meningitis and its complications: vaccination. Still, it’s not as simple as just going to the doctor for a meningitis shot. Learn more about the types of meningitis vaccines and when your teen should get them.

Types of vaccines

There isn’t one single meningitis vaccine that covers all types of meningitis. This is due to the fact that meningitis has more than one cause. According to the Mayo Clinic, most U.S. patients get meningitis from a viral infection. Bacteria, parasites, and fungal organisms can also cause meningitis.

However, bacterial meningitis tends to be the most dangerous type, causing more severe complications and, in some cases, death. The most common and concerning bacterial source is from the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. It’s the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in the United States among people ages 2 to 18. It’s also the bacteria type that meningitis vaccines provide protection against.

Meningitis vaccines come in different forms for certain bacterial groups. Teens and young adults may receive the meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4), covering the four most common bacterial serotypes — A, C W, and Y — or the serogroup B meningococcal vaccine (MenB). These are both used to prevent bacterial meningitis. MCV4 provides more long-term protection (especially when booster shots are taken when needed). MenB provides short-term protection against a particular strain of the infection.

When to get vaccinated

The key to the meningitis vaccines is to make sure that your teen gets them at the right time. Your child may get the MCV4 vaccine if they are:

  • Between 11 and 15 years old. After the initial MCV4 vaccine, your teen will get a booster shot after five years.
  • After the age of 16. In this case, your teen won’t need the booster shot. Important to note: It’s better to get the vaccines earlier rather than later. This will help prevent meningitis during your teen’s high school years.
  • First-year college students. This applies to those who haven’t received a diagnosis or missed their booster shots.
  • Those deemed by a pediatrician to need extra protection. This is due to underlying illnesses. Examples include immune system disorders or a damaged spleen.

Technically, the MenB vaccine is approved for children over the age of 10. Your doctor might recommend a dose at a younger age if your child has immune system deficiencies. But MenB is usually taken around the age of 16. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends MenB shots for teens ages 16 to 18. However, it may be given to young adults up to 23 years old.

Is it too late to get vaccinated?

The answer to this question isn’t so clear-cut. If you have an unvaccinated teen headed off to college, there is still time for them to get their vaccines. Your child may also need another shot if they had the vaccine as a preteen. Meningitis vaccines are thought to only last for about five years, according to the Center for Young Women’s Health.

Adults can also get the meningitis vaccine if their doctors recommend it. Certain situations can warrant the use of meningitis vaccinations. Examples include spleen removal, going to military camp, or traveling overseas.

What happens if you skip a vaccination?

Skipping on your teen’s meningitis vaccination doesn’t necessarily mean that your teen will get infected. But meningitis vaccines are arguably your teen’s best line of defense against this life-threatening infection. Because bacterial meningitis tends to be more aggressive and serious than other causes of meningitis, vaccination is the best way to protect your teen against bacterial meningitis.

It’s important to note that antibiotics don’t work against viral meningitis. Antivirals may help, but the viral form of meningitis is usually treated with time and bedrest. Antifungals and antibiotics can be used for other less common forms of meningitis. But they’re typically used as afterthoughts when the infection has already taken hold.