Health Center > Meningitis Information > Meningitis General Information

Meningitis General Information

Updated February 6, 2015

Q: What is meningitis?

A: Meningococcal meningitis is caused by a bacteria called Neisseria meningitides that can infect the lining of the brain and spinal cord. There are a few different types or strains of Neisseria meningitides. In the US, types B, C and Y cause the majority of disease.

In the US, approximately 800 to 1,500 people are infected with meningococcal meningitis and 120 die from the disease per year. About one of every five survivors lives with permanent disabilities, such as seizures, amputations, kidney disease, deafness, brain damage and psychological problems.

Q: How is bacterial meningitis treated?

A: Treatment should be started immediately. Most people with meningitis are hospitalized and treated with antibiotics. Depending on the severity of the infection, other treatments may also be necessary.

Q: Is bacterial meningitis contagious?

A: Bacterial meningitis is contagious, but generally is transmitted through direct exchange of respiratory and throat secretions by close personal contact, such as coughing, sharing drinks, kissing and being in close proximity for an extended period. Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as the common cold or the flu, and they are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been.

Q: What are the symptoms?

A: Symptoms of bacterial meningitis could include high fever, headache and stiff neck. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, confusion and sensitivity to light. Later in the illness, a rash that looks like purple blotches or spots on the arms, legs and torso may appear.

Q: How long until symptoms begin to present themselves?

A: They can develop over several hours, or may take a few days. The incubation period can be one to two weeks.

Q: Can someone be a “carrier” without experiencing symptoms?

A: Five to 25 percent of people may carry the bacteria in their nose or throat without getting sick, while still being contagious to others. This carrier state may last for days or months before spontaneously disappearing. Most cases of meningitis are acquired through exposure to these asymptomatic carriers

Q: Can I be a carrier if I have received one or two doses of a meningitis vaccine?

A: Yes. It is unlikely that the vaccine will stop carriage, but full dosage of the vaccine does protect the individual who received the vaccine from developing symptoms of the disease. It is unknown whether the vaccine would prevent acquisition of carriage. If you are carrying the bacteria, you can transmit it to another person through close contact (exchange of saliva through kissing, sharing drinks, etc.).

Q: How long can someone be a carrier after getting this vaccine?

A: (From the CDC): Since this vaccine is relatively new, we do not have enough data to know what the impact is on carriage. For meningococcal bacteria in general, we are not certain for each person how much time he or she can carry the bacteria.  We do know that carriage is not permanent and generally lasts weeks to months. The length of time may vary by person and with each specific strain of the bacteria. We do not have specific data on the duration of carriage, or what the maximum duration of carriage is, for all strains.

Q: What should I do if I develop flu-like symptoms or think I’ve been exposed to meningitis?

A: Students experiencing high fever with or without headache, stiff neck and other symptoms of meningitis should be examined at the Student Health Center. Faculty and staff should go to the local emergency room or notify the Health Center.  Visitors and those off-campus should go to a local emergency room.

Q: How can transmission be prevented?

A: Do NOT share anything that comes in contact with the mouth, including:

  • water bottles
  • lip balm
  • toothbrushes
  • towels
  • drinking glasses
  • eating utensils
  • cosmetics
  • smoking materials
  • food or drink from common source (e.g., punch bowl)

Do not cough into another person’s face. Cough into your sleeve or a tissue. Wash or sanitize hands frequently. Make sure your vaccinations are up to date.

Q: Should I wear a mask to prevent exposure?

A: The Centers for Disease control does not recommend wearing a surgical mask to prevent exposure.

Q: Are special cleaning precautions for meningitis?

A: No. The bacteria that causes meningitis does not live long outside the body. There is no evidence showing that people are at risk of catching the infection by touching surfaces like doorknobs or keyboards.

Q: Isn’t there a vaccine for meningitis?

A: Yes, there is a vaccine for meningitis. However, while the vaccine protects against most strains of the bacteria, it does not protect against type B, which is the type found in the cases at Providence College.  For more information about meningococcal vaccination, including serogroup B meningococcal vaccines, see information from the CDC.

In October 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a meningitis B vaccine, Trumenba, made by Pfizer. This vaccine requires three doses – initial, second dose after two months, third dose after six months. In January 2015, the FDA approved Bexsero, the meningitis B vaccine by Novartis.  This vaccine requires two doses, spaced at least one month apart.  While both vaccines are licensed for individuals ages 10 through 25, medical experts have not yet made recommendations as to whom should receive them. Thus, while all physicians have access to the vaccines, not all will have it in stock.

Q: Who is at higher risk from meningococcal meningitis?

A: According to the Centers for Disease Control, infants, adolescents and young adults age 16 to 23, and those over age 65 are at a higher risk of infection. People with complement component deficiency and those whose spleen is damaged or has been removed are also at increased risk.  If you have questions or are concerned, please contact your personal physician.

More information is available at

Q: Will campus events be cancelled due to concerns about meningitis?

A: The Rhode Island Department of Health and the US Centers for Disease Control have not recommended cancelling events or avoiding contact with students. The College is taking extra steps to ensure that visitors are equipped with information and reminders around campus. Hand sanitizer will be provided at all event headquarters and meal sites.

Q: Are the cases of meningitis at University of California-Santa Barbara or at Princeton University related to the outbreak at Providence?  How do you know?

A: No, the cases are not related. While the cases at both the University of California-Santa Barbara and Princeton involve serogroup B meningococcal bacteria, the genetic strains of the bacteria are not the same.

Q: Will frequent handwashing lead to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria?

A: Washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick or spreading germs to others. If you are concerned about creating antibiotic resistant bacteria, use regular soap rather than antibacterial soap. There is no evidence that antibacterial soap is more beneficial than plain soap. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. The active ingredient in these hand sanitizers is usually alcohol, not an antibiotic.

Q: What if soap and water are not available to wash my hands?

A: You may clean your hands with a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Q: If alcohol sanitizes, is it safe to share an alcoholic beverage with my friend?

A: Sharing anything that comes in contact with the mouth (e.g., drinking cups, cans or bottles) can lead to the spread of meningitis. Alcoholic beverages do not contain enough alcohol by volume to prevent the spread of illness.

The consumption of alcohol may also lead to decreased judgment about sharing objects that come into contact with the mouth.