Meningitis is an infection that causes the layers of tissue (meninges) surrounding the brain and the spinal cord to swell. This infection can be caused by a virus or bacteria, and in rare cases, by a parasite or fungus.

Viral meningitis is typically not severe and often goes away on its own. But bacterial meningitis can be life threatening and cause serious long-term health problems. Key symptoms include a stiff neck, fever, and headache.

Scientists have developed several vaccines to prevent this dangerous type of meningitis. These shots play an essential part in lowering the rate and severity of bacterial meningitis across the world.

Getting vaccinated against a type of meningitis isn’t for everyone, and the right vaccine will depend on your age and certain risk factors. We’ll go over the different vaccines available, including how getting the shot works, side effects and more.

Different vaccines work against specific bacteria causing meningitis. They’re separated into categories and by their various brand-name options.

The most common strains of bacterial meningitis are identified as A, B, C, W, and Y. As explained in the table below, the core bacterial meningitis vaccines MenB and MenACWY protect against these strains.

There are also other types of bacteria known to cause meningitis. For example, Streptococcus pneumoniae is known to cause pneumonia and ear infections but can also cause meningitis. Vaccines for these bacteria, such as Prevnar13, can help prevent the many types of associated illnesses.

Here’s a breakdown of available vaccines, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) :

Bacterial strainVaccine name
neisseria meningitidis
MenB (Bexsero and Trumenba)
MenACWY (Menactra, Menveo, and MenQuadfi)
haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)Hib (ActHIB, Hiberix, and PedvaxHIB)
streptococcus pneumoniae
PCV13 (Prevnar 13), PPSV23 (Pneumovax 23), and recently PCV20 (Prevnar 20, for adults over 65)

Meningococcal vaccines

Meningococcal vaccines protect against various serotypes, or distinguishable strains, of Neisseria meningitidis. This bacterial strain can cause serious infections including meningitis, meningococcemia, and blood poisoning (septicemia).

There are two main types of meningococcal vaccines available in the United States:

  • MenACWY (Menactra, Menveo, MenQuadfi) is a conjugate vaccine that provides protection against four serogroups of meningococcus: A, C, W, and Y.
  • MenB (Bexsero, Trumenba) is a recombinant vaccine that provides protection against serogroup B.

Currently, there’s no vaccine available that protects against all five serogroups of meningococcus at once. You can get more than one type of vaccine, although the CDC says this may require separate appointments or different injection sites.

MenACWY and MenB are the most common meningitis vaccines in the United States, and usually what we refer to when discussing meningitis vaccination. They are recommended for all children and teens, and some adults.

Read on for an introduction to other vaccines that can help protect against meningitis, and further information about who should get vaccinated.

H. influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine

This vaccine protects against H. influenzae type b (Hib) bacteria, which can cause a range of mild to severe illnesses. These include throat swelling, blood infections and pneumonia.

Before the vaccine, Hib was a leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children under age 5.

  • Hib vaccine is usually administered to infants in three to four doses, starting at 2 months old. In rare cases, it may be recommended for older children and young adults with HIV. The vaccine can be given with other vaccines.

Pneumococcal vaccines

Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) can also cause many types of illness, including pneumonia, sinus infection, and meningitis.

Per the CDC, two key vaccines are used to help prevent pneumococcal disease:

  • 13-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine or PCV13 (Prevnar 13) protects against meningitis caused by 13 serotypes of S. pneumoniae. Most serious disease in young children is caused by these 13 serotypes of pneumococcus.
  • 23-valent pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine, or PPSV23 (Pneumovax), protects against 23 types of pneumococcal bacteria. PPSV23 may be given at least 8 weeks after a PCV13 dose.

A third vaccine was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent diseases caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae serotypes:

  • 20-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine or PCV20 (Prevnar 20) contains seven additional serotypes than Prevnar 13. This vaccine specifically aims to protect adults from pneumonia.

Other vaccines that may help

While there’s currently no vaccine for viral meningitis, its believed several other routine vaccinations can help prevent it secondarily. Since meningitis can be a complication of other illnesses, being protected against them may lower your meningitis risk, too.

These vaccines include:

It’s important to keep up to date with your or your child’s vaccination schedule to stay healthy and safe.

Some of these vaccines are considered routine vaccinations recommended for all children or adolescents. Others are only recommended for people considered high risk.

Here’s a deeper dive into which vaccines are typically recommended per age group:

  • MenACWY is given as a routine vaccination to children ages 11 to 12, with a booster given at age 16. MenACWY is also recommended for people ages 2 months and older who are considered high risk for meningococcal disease.
  • MenB is given as a routine vaccination to people ages 10 and older who are at increased risk for meningococcal disease. A booster dose is given at 1 year after primary series completion, then every 2 to 3 years thereafter.
  • Hib is considered a routine vaccination that is given as a three- or four-part series starting when a child is around 2 months old. The dose schedule varies on the brand of vaccine used.
  • PCV13 is recommended as a routine vaccination, with doses given at ages 2, 4, 6, and 12 to 15 months. The CDC also recommends PCV13 for adults who are immunocompromised or have a cerebrospinal fluid leak or cochlear implant.
  • PPSV23 is recommended for all adults ages 65 and older who have not yet received a pneumococcal vaccine, and in people ages 2 years and older who have a higher risk of pneumococcal disease due to underlying medical conditions. It’s also recommended for adults who smoke cigarettes.
  • PCV20 is recommended for adults ages 65 and older who have never received a pneumococcal conjugate vaccine or whose vaccination status isn’t known.

You are considered high risk for meningococcal disease if you:

  • have functional or anatomic asplenia (absence of the spleen)
  • have an immune system disorder called persistent complement component deficiency
  • take medications known as complement inhibitors, such as eculizumab (Soliris)
  • have HIV
  • travel to countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and any others where the meningococcal vaccine is recommended
  • are a scientist who works with the meningococcus bacterium in a lab
  • are a first-year college student living in a dorm or residence hall
  • are a military recruit

Proof of up-to-date meningitis vaccination is often required for going to school, entering military service, and in some travel situations. These are considered “high risk” environments for infections like meningitis, as they put large groups of people in close quarters.

Vaccines for meningitis are typically given as an injection into the muscle in the upper arm for teens and adults. Infants usually receive the injection in the thigh.

These vaccines contain a very tiny dose of the bacteria or parts from the bacteria that can’t cause infection. After the vaccine is delivered, your body makes antibodies against the bacteria.

Basically, vaccines train your body to fight bacteria it hasn’t met yet. If you later come in contact with meningitis, these preexisting antibodies can help protect your body.

Vaccines are not a “cure” for meningitis or a guarantee you won’t contract the infection. They are an important tool to defend against its severe effects and to slow transmission.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), prevention of meningitis through vaccination is the most effective way to reduce the burden of the disease and offer lasting protection.

While vaccination is not 100 percent effective, meningitis infection and death rates have declined drastically since meningitis vaccination started in the 1990s.

Here’s what the research tells us:

  • Before the introduction of the Hib vaccine, Hib was the top cause of bacterial meningitis in children under age 5. Around 3 to 6 percent of Hib cases involving meningitis were fatal at this time. Following introduction of the conjugate Hib vaccine in 1989, the rate of invasive Hib disease in children under age 5 declined by 99 percent, to less than 1 case per 100,000 children.
  • In 2005, the CDC recommended routine vaccination with the MenACWY vaccine for pre-teens and teens. Since then, meningococcal disease in adolescents decreased by over 90 percent.
  • Getting at least one dose of PCV13 protects at least 8 in 10 babies from serious pneumococcal infections, and 3 in 4 adults ages 65 or older against invasive pneumococcal disease.
  • Being vaccinated against meningitis has been found to slow transmission over time, especially if large groups receive a vaccine. This means vaccination can make you less contagious if you have an infection.

How dangerous is bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis continues to be a high risk disease. It’s always considered a medical emergency, and is known to spread quickly and aggressively.

Here’s what the numbers tell us:

  • Bacterial meningitis can have an overall death rate of 10 to 15 percent, which increases for older adults.
  • It can become fatal in a matter of hours if antibiotics are not administered.
  • If untreated, the rate of death from bacterial meningitis can go up to 70 percent.
  • Approximately 20 percent of people who recover from the infection have a lasting health problem, such as loss of hearing, neurologic disability, and even limb loss.
Was this helpful?

Meningitis vaccines are considered safe and effective, and have been used for decades. However, as with all vaccines, side effects can occur.

When giving you the vaccine, a nurse or health professional will swab the area (usually your upper arm) with a sterilizing wipe. They’ll insert a small needle into the skin to deliver the vaccine. You may feel a pinch during the shot.

Side effects are typically mild and resolve shortly.

These may include:

  • swelling or soreness at the injection site
  • fatigue
  • fever or chills
  • headache
  • muscle or joint pain
  • nausea

Some people may experience dizziness or feel faint getting a meningitis shot. This is believed to be a stress response to the situation, not a reaction to the vaccine itself. If you have a history of feeling lightheaded or passing out after receiving a shot or blood draw, let your doctor know before the appointment.

As with all vaccines, there’s a slim risk of having a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine component.

People who should not get a vaccine include:

  • anyone with a prior allergic reaction to the vaccine
  • people who are currently sick (such as with a cold or the flu)
  • children younger than 2 years shouldn’t receive PPSV23

Bacterial meningitis is a serious infection that can become life threatening. It requires immediate treatment with antibiotics. Vaccines have drastically reduced the rates of bacterial meningitis across the world, especially among children.

There are several types of vaccines for meningitis. Each protects against different bacteria. So far, there’s no single vaccine that can protect against all meningitis bacteria. The main vaccines used against bacterial meningitis in the United States are MenB and MenACWY.

Meningitis vaccines are given on varying schedules and targeted toward certain demographics. Some vaccines require multiple doses and may only be recommended if you are considered high risk for bacterial meningitis.

Talk with your doctor about your risk factors and whether getting a vaccine may be right for you or your loved one.