Meningitis is an infection and inflammation of your meninges. Your meninges are the thin tissues that cover your spinal cord and your brain. Meningitis can be caused by many different organisms, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses.

Meningococcal meningitis is caused by bacteria. This specific type of meningitis leads to death in about half of untreated cases. Meningitis is marked by many cold and flu-like symptoms, such as a headache and a high fever. Its symptoms also include confusion, or irritability in infants, and a stiff neck. You should see your doctor right away if you suspect that you or a loved one might have meningococcal meningitis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 5 to 10 percent of the population carry the bacteria that cause meningococcal meningitis. In most cases, it’s dormant. That means it doesn’t lead to illness or symptoms.

If it isn’t dormant, it’s very dangerous. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the infection is fatal in 10 to 15 percent of cases, even with treatment. Another 10 to 15 percent of cases will result in permanent brain damage and other serious side effects.

You’ll typically develop symptoms about three to five days after being exposed to the bacteria, and this duration is known as the “incubation period.” In some cases, this may happen as quickly as two days after exposure, or it may take up to 14 days.

Meningococcal meningitis has several common symptoms. They usually appear rapidly. They include:

  • confusion
  • a headache
  • a high fever
  • severe sensitivity to light, or photophobia
  • a stiff neck
  • vomiting

Other possible, but less common, symptoms include:

  • irritability
  • a rash
  • sleepiness
  • lethargy

As the disease progresses, you may experience seizures. It can even lead to death, especially if left untreated.

Meningococcal meningitis is caused by a strain of bacteria known as Neisseria meningitidis.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this type of meningitis occurs most often in a region Africa called the “meningitis belt.” This strip extends from Guinea and Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east. However, it can also occur in the United States and other countries worldwide.

Meningococcal meningitis is transmitted only between people. Animals aren’t carriers of this disease. The bacteria are spread through mucus or saliva. If you come into contact with one of these fluids from an infected person, you might contract the bacteria.

You might contract it if you and an infected person share something that touches your mouths. This might be a toothbrush, a cigarette, or even lipstick. It can also be transferred through kissing an infected person, or by inhaling the tiny droplets that are expelled when they sneeze or cough.

According to the CDC, up to 10 percent of the population may carry a dormant version of N. meningitidis. That doesn’t mean that they can’t infect you. A person can spread N. meningitidis even when it’s dormant.

Your doctor will generally diagnose meningococcal meningitis by performing a spinal tap, which is also known as a lumbar puncture (LP). During an LP, your doctor will take a sample of your spinal fluid by inserting a needle into your spine. This fluid is then tested to determine whether you have this disease.

Your doctor might also perform a blood test and a physical examination for symptoms of meningococcal meningitis. While these are not as conclusive as a spinal tap, they can help give your doctor insight into your condition.

Your doctor will immediately admit you to the hospital if they believe you have meningococcal meningitis. They’ll treat you with an antibiotic, such as ceftriaxone. In some cases, your doctor might use another antibiotic, such as:

  • ampicillin
  • penicillin G
  • cefotaxime
  • chloramphenicol
  • vancomycin
  • gentamicin

Because this disease is spread through close contact, your doctor may also recommend treating anyone who may have been in close contact with you.

According to WHO, this very serious form of meningitis is fatal in up to half of untreated cases.

With early diagnosis and treatment, the death rate goes down to 5 to 15 percent. These deaths typically occur within the first three days of onset.

One in five of those who survive the disease will have lasting problems as a result. These can include brain damage and hearing loss.

This disease is very dangerous, even with prompt treatment. See your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately if you think you might have meningococcal meningitis.

There’s no single vaccine that can protect you from all forms of meningococcal meningitis. Instead, there are several vaccines made to protect you against different types of meningococcal meningitis.

The vaccines are generally recommended for people aged 11 to 18 years. People aged 19 to 21 who are enrolling in college should also get vaccinated.

Your doctor may recommend a vaccine in some other cases. For example, if you’re planning to travel to a part of the world where meningococcal meningitis is regularly found, you may be advised to get a vaccine first. Your doctor might also suggest the vaccine if you’ve had your spleen removed or if you have a chronic illness.