What is Meningitis B?

An overview of meningitis B, from symptoms and complications to treatment and vaccination.

Medically reviewed in April 2022

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, which are the membranes that protect the spinal cord and brain. Meningitis is usually caused by viruses or bacteria, but it can have other causes as well.

Bacterial meningitis can lead to potentially life-threatening complications, or even death. Meningitis B (MenB) is one type of bacterial meningitis. It is caused by serogroup B of Neisseria meningitidis bacteria.

In addition to causing inflammation in the meninges, these bacteria can also enter the bloodstream, causing a severe infection called meningococcal septicemia (also known as sepsis). An infection in the bloodstream can damage blood vessels, which can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, loss of limbs, and even death.

How meningitis B spreads
The bacteria that cause MenB are spread through saliva and respiratory droplets. People of all ages can get MenB, but older teens and college-age young adults make up a significant percentage of patients—and a number of outbreaks on college campuses have occurred in the past decade. Living in close quarters, sharing items such as utensils or water bottles, and kissing—all of which can be very common on a college campus—can promote the transmission of the bacteria that cause MenB.

How symptoms present themselves
It’s not always easy to recognize MenB because early signs and symptoms can resemble those of the flu or other viral infections. Symptoms of MenB may include the sudden onset of a fever, a severe headache, and a stiff neck that’s hard to move. Nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, rash, fatigue, and mental confusion are common too, as well as something called photophobia, in which the eyes become more sensitive to light. Meningitis B can worsen very quickly, even within a few hours from the start of symptoms, so it’s imperative to seek medical treatment as soon as possible.

How meningitis B is diagnosed
If meningitis is suspected, a healthcare provider will order tests, which will include a spinal tap (also called a lumbar puncture) to collect a sample of fluid from around the spinal cord. The fluid will then be analyzed for any signs of inflammation and to determine whether the infection is due to a virus or bacteria. Other tests may include a CT scan of the brain, blood and urine testing, and a swab collection from the nose or throat.

How meningitis B is treated
Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics that are administered intravenously. Because meningococcal disease can progress rapidly, antibiotic treatment is often administered when bacterial meningitis is suspected, without waiting for confirmation from diagnostic tests. Patients may also be given a corticosteroid to help alleviate inflammation and swelling, as well as plenty of fluids to help prevent dehydration resulting from fever, sweating, vomiting, or poor appetite. Antibiotics may also be administered to roommates, family members, partners, and other close contacts as a preventive measure.

How to help prevent meningitis B
Because meningitis can have devastating consequences if not treated promptly, it’s important to talk to kids and teens about prevention. Refraining from sharing items that could carry saliva, such as water bottles, utensils, lip balm, or even towels, can help prevent the transmission of meningitis-causing bacteria as well as other infections. Washing hands often, with soap and water, can also prevent transmission.

In addition, the MenB vaccine can help protect against the bacteria that cause meningitis B. The vaccine is preferably administered to teens between 16 and 18 years old. This vaccination is especially important for those who are at higher risk of MenB. This includes: 1) those who have a rare type of immune disorder called complement component deficiency; 2) those who are taking a type of medication called a complement inhibitor; and 3) those who have a damaged spleen or have had their spleen removed.

This also includes those who are part of a population at increased risk because of a MenB outbreak. You can talk to your teen’s healthcare provider to learn more about vaccination options.

Medically Reviewed in May 2020

Columbia University Department of Neurology. "Bacterial Meningitis."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Bacterial Meningitis."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Meningitis."
Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Bacterial Meningitis."
National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. "What You Need to Know about Serogroup B Meningococcal Disease Frequently Asked Questions."
Meningitis Now. "Meningococcal disease."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Meningococcal Disease: Signs and Symptoms."
Meningitis Research Foundation. "Meningococcal meningitis." "Meningococcal Disease: Information for Teens and College Students."
National Meningitis Association. "Statistics and Disease Facts."
TeensHealth from Nemours. "Meningitis."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Meningococcal Disease: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Complications."
Rhode Island Department of Health. "Frequently Asked Questions About Meningitis and the Cases at Providence College." February 5, 2015.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Meningococcal B VIS."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Serogroup B Meningococcal Disease: What You Need to Know."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Meningococcal Vaccination for Preteens and Teens: Information for Parents."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Meningococcal Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know."

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