Meningitis B Can Be Deadly—Here Are 12 Symptoms to Know

Natasha Lavender

No matter your parenting style, it’s important to know the signs of serious illnesses that can impact your kids—even when they’re old enough to resent being called kids. With that in mind, let’s talk about meningitis B symptoms all parents should know in order to keep their children as safe as possible.

According to the Mayo Clinic, meningitis is inflammation of the meninges (the membranes around your brain and spinal cord). This can be caused by a virus, parasite, fungus, or bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that meningitis B, specifically, is caused by an infection with one subtype of the bacteria N. meningitidis. The B refers to a specific serogroup, or type, of this bacteria. The five other main serogroups of N. meningitidis are A, C, W, X, and Y. These serogroups can also cause bacterial meningitis, though they can’t cause meningitis B. Together, these kinds of meningitis are referred to generally as meningococcal disease to distinguish them from meningitis caused by, say, a virus.

Meningitis B is dangerous enough that it’s incredibly important to understand how it spreads, when your kids are most at risk, the symptoms to watch out for, and how to prevent the illness in the first place.

Meningitis B spreads through saliva.

Some people—approximately one in 10, according to the CDC—already have N. meningitidis bacteria living harmlessly inside them. There’s no way to know if you’re one of these carriers, because the bacteria can just peacefully coexist in your system without making you feel sick. But it’s still possible for carriers with zero symptoms to pass this bacteria on to others through what the CDC describes as respiratory and throat secretions, meaning saliva. Even if you contract the bacteria from someone else, your body’s immune system is often able to prevent it from turning into an infection. But sometimes, this bacteria does cause an infection that can make people very, very sick.

Unlike something like the common cold or flu, the CDC clarifies that it typically takes close and/or lengthy contact for meningococcal bacteria to spread, like kissing, sharing utensils, or being in the same room as someone who’s coughing for an extended period of time.

Babies and adolescents are some of the most at-risk groups for meningitis B infection.

Although anyone can develop meningitis B, these are the groups that are most at risk, according to the CDC:

  • Infants under 1 year old

  • People aged 16 to 23

  • People with compromised immune systems

  • Anyone in an area where there has been an outbreak

  • Microbiologists who commonly work with N. meningitidis bacteria

It’s easy to see why most of these groups would be at an increased risk of contracting this illness, except for older teens and people in their early 20s. Researchers don’t fully understand this age group as a risk factor, but they think it could have to do with lifestyle changes that typically happen in this age group. These are the years when many people go to college, move around the country, and live in close quarters with new people.

“Outbreaks of meningococcal disease tend to happen in places like colleges or military barracks, where people come from lots of different places and are crammed together in close quarters,” Adam J. Ratner, M.D., director of the division of Pediatric Infectious Disease at NYU Langone and associate professor in both the department of Pediatrics and department of Microbiology at NYU Langone, tells SELF. “In addition, other respiratory infections can circulate well in those communities. For example, having the flu increases your risk of developing meningococcal disease, because it can break down immune defenses.”

Symptoms of meningitis B can escalate quickly.

Without treatment, the impact of this disease can be very serious, if not fatal. The CDC notes that 10 to 15 percent of cases of meningococcal disease lead to death, even with treatment, and that of the survivors, 10 to 20 percent will be left with permanent disabilities, including hearing loss, limb amputation, or brain damage. Knowing the symptoms is essential for acting as early as possible.

Here are the most common symptoms of meningitis B (and all types of meningococcal disease), according to the CDC:

  1. Fever

  2. Headache

  3. A stiff neck

There might also be:

  1. Nausea and/or vomiting

  2. Confusion

  3. Pain or increased sensitivity to bright lights. While many of the other symptoms of meningitis can also happen due to illnesses like the flu, having this symptom is a major red flag of meningitis for doctors, Jatin Vyas, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who also works in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF.

In babies and children, the CDC recommends also looking out for:

  1. Lethargy or a decrease in activity

  2. Irritability

  3. Vomiting

  4. Poor feeding

  5. A bulge in a baby’s anterior fontanelle (the soft spot of the skull)

  6. Poor reflexes

The severity of meningitis symptoms can vary at first, but they can escalate very quickly, Dr. Vyas warns. “Oftentimes there’s a fairly sudden onset, and it's usually worrisome enough that people will end up seeking medical care pretty quickly,” he says. “There are tragic stories where someone is healthy but doesn't feel well and goes to bed; they may end up quickly getting ill, being unable to contact emergency services, and dying in their apartment or in their dorm.”

If you suspect your child has meningitis, you need to take them to the emergency room immediately. Dr. Vyas adds that the prognosis depends on getting treated as soon as possible. “The earlier you are in your disease course when you get treatment, the more likely you will end up doing well,” he tells SELF.

A vaccine is the best way to protect against meningitis B.

Meningococcal disease’s quick onset and relatively high risk of death or further complications means that prevention is much more preferable to treating the disease after the fact. That’s why the CDC recommends that certain groups (or their parents) look into meningitis B vaccination: young people between the ages of 16 and 23 (especially those between 16 and 18), children 10 and up who have certain immune disorders or are otherwise at increased risk of infection, and anyone who’s part of a group identified as at higher risk of a meningitis B outbreak (like college students).

“It prevents a potentially very serious disease,” Dr. Ratner says. “We know that it's safe, and we know that it is effective in generating immune responses.” If you have any questions about the meningitis B vaccine, Dr. Vyas recommends talking to your primary care doctor for more information, along with information about other vaccines your child needs to stay as safe as possible, like vaccination against other forms of meningococcal disease.

You’ll probably never stop worrying about your kid’s health. It’s just part of being a parent. Knowing the symptoms and risks of rare but serious diseases like meningitis B and other forms of meningococcal disease will empower you to get your child life-saving treatments should they ever need it, and protect them through vaccines when you can.

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Originally Appeared on SELF