Meningitis FAQ

February 2016

A probable case of bacterial meningitis (meningococcal disease) was recently reported ( ) in the Yale community. While the disease is not as easily spread as cold or flu, it is serious. We have prepared the following to help answer frequently asked questions. Additional information is available through the CDC website (

What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease is caused by the type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. This bacteria lives harmlessly in the nose and throat of a significant portion of the population at any given time (estimates range from 5% and upward). In a small number of vulnerable individuals, the bacteria, instead of residing harmlessly, invade the body causing infection.

Is meningococcal disease serious?
Yes. Every year in the United States approximately 800 to 1,500 people develop illness from the meningococcal bacteria. Most survive, but 1 in 5 will have permanent complications from the infection. The infection is fatal in a smaller number of cases.

What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of meningococcal disease may range from high fever alone to high fever with a headache or stiff neck. Not every person with the disease has a 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 may appear on the arms, legs, and torso. Symptoms can develop over several hours or may take a few days. The incubation period can be 2 to 10 days.

How is meningococcal disease treated?
Antibiotics are effective against the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease. Treatment should be started as soon as possible. Most people with meningococcal disease are hospitalized and treated with antibiotics. Depending on the severity of the infection, other treatments may also be necessary.

How contagious is meningococcal disease?
This bacteria is not as contagious as the common cold or the flu. It is spread through close, direct contact with the respiratory and throat secretions of someone carrying the bacteria. This contact may occur as a result of coughing, sneezing, sharing drinks, kissing, and being in close proximity for an extended period. To prevent the spread of illness, you should avoid sharing anything that comes in contact with the mouth, such as: cups or drinking glasses, straws, eating utensils, towels, cosmetics, toothbrushes, mouth guards, smoking materials, face masks, or kisses. To avoid transmission, don’t cough or sneeze into another person’s face: instead, cough or sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue. And wash your hands: frequent hand-washing is another simple and highly effective technique to prevent the spread of bacteria.

Are there ways in which meningococcal disease is NOT spread?
The meningococcal bacteria are not spread by casual contact (e.g., shaking hands, touching door knobs) or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningococcal disease has been. The bacteria do not survive for long outside the body.

Can someone be a “carrier” without experiencing symptoms?
Approximately 5% to 25% of people may carry the bacteria in their nose or throat without getting sick. This carrier state may last for days or months before spontaneously disappearing. Most cases of meningococcal disease are acquired through exposure to these asymptomatic carriers.

Isn’t there a vaccine for meningitis?
Yes, there are currently vaccines that protect against all three of the major serotypes (strains) of the meningococcus bacteria. Connecticut state law requires that all Yale students living on campus, in residential colleges and graduate dormitories, receive the vaccine for type A meningococcus prior to enrollment. Please consult your healthcare provider with questions about your vaccine status or if you want more information about vaccination for the other serotypes of meningococcus. 

How can transmission be prevented?
Practice good universal precautions, including hand and cough hygiene. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or sleeve, and wash hands frequently or use alcohol hand gel. Refrain from sharing drinking glasses, smoking materials, eating utensils, or anything else that comes in contact with the mouth.

Will frequent hand-washing lead to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria?
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.

If alcohol sanitizes, is it safe to share an alcoholic beverage with a friend?
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.

What should I do if I develop symptoms or I think someone I am with has developed symptoms?
Students experiencing high fever or other symptoms of meningococcal disease should be examined as soon as possible at Yale Health, 55 Lock St. They may contact Public Safety at 203-432-6330 to request transport. Faculty and staff who are members of Yale Health should call the health plan 203-431-0038 or come in to Acute Care 203-432-0123. Those with other health plans should contact their healthcare providers.

Will planned university events be cancelled?
No. We have received no recommendation to cancel or curtail normal campus activities, including classes, public lectures, and sporting events. All campus events will take place as scheduled.

Where can I get more information?
Visit the Yale Emergency Management website This website contains links to the Connecticut Department of Public Health as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Further information can be found on the Yale Health website