Meningitis is more common in winter, spring: How you can prevent catching the deadly illness

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

Influenza and the common cold aren’t the only wintertime health threats that could impact your family this season. Bacterial meningitis is a serious illness that could kill an infected person in a matter of days if not treated promptly, and more cases are likely to be reported during the colder times of the year.

Researchers found that incidents of bacterial meningitis, which is caused by common bacterial infections including streptococcus, tend to peak in the northern and southern hemispheres during the dry winter months.

Meningitis is an inflammation and swelling of the membranes, or meninges, that surround your brain and spinal cord, which results in symptoms including a stiff neck, headache and fever, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Infected individuals might think they’re experiencing the flu as symptoms develop early on. While some meningitis cases can improve without treatment a few weeks after infection, others can potentially be fatal and require emergency antibiotics to treat them, the Mayo Clinic reported.

Sick woman checks a thermometer - Getty Images

(Photo/KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images)

In the United States, cases of the less health-threatening viral meningitis occur more often than the deadly bacterial varieties of the illness, said Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and regional medical director at International SOS, a medical and travel security risk services company.

“Viral meningitis is a much less aggressive type of the disease that still results in symptoms [including] generalized malaise, fever, fatigue, stiff neck and photophobia,” Quigley said.

“The onset and extent of symptoms with bacterial meningitis [are] so much more serious, aggressive and impactful on the person that gets the disease that they can have long-term sequelae, and they can die with it,” he said. “That would be very unusual, if not unheard of, with the more common viral variety.”

Although a rise in cases of bacterial meningitis happens during winter and spring, Quigley added that this does not mean that there is an overall upswing in occurrence of the illness. He also noted that in recent years, there has been a significant decline in the number of cases of meningitis.

“When we are seeing cases, they are during this time of year, and that’s a consequence of the method of spreading, which is close contact with someone who is either a carrier or somebody who has the active disease,” Quigley told AccuWeather.

Getting vaccinated

Vaccines can help prevent cases of meningitis, especially in adolescents and young adults who face an increased risk of contracting meningococcal disease, which is meningitis caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The vaccines that we recommend for everybody in the appropriate age group are for bacterial meningitis,” Quigley said. “Those vaccines cover the common serotypes [of A, C, W and Y], which are just different variations of the organism.”

Medical experts do not typically recommend the separate type B meningitis vaccine unless they believe a person is at risk for contracting that disease, because type B is rare, according to Quigley.

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It is still possible to become ill with meningitis after being vaccinated, as the vaccine doesn’t provide lifelong immunity experts say. “If you do catch it, it will be less severe,” said Dr. Devon Carr, a primary care physician with the Athens, Georgia-based Reddy Medical Group. “You might just have symptoms of a common cold instead of a severe case of meningitis.”

Preventing the illness

Medical experts recommend simple practices for avoiding catching meningitis, including frequent hand washing, not sharing drinking cups with sick individuals and being cautious around individuals who are sick and coughing.

“All of those common-sense best practices, which we call universal precautions, can go a long way,” Quigley advised.

“Make sure kids receive their routine vaccinations, including the vaccination for newborns, because there’s a vaccine against strep pneumonia as well as Haemophilus influenzae type B, which is the common cause of meningitis in kids,” Carr said. “As they get older, when they’re adolescents, at 11, 12 and 16 is when they start receiving the meningitis vaccine.”

Those who intend to travel to parts of the world where meningitis is far more common, such as the “meningitis belt” in sub-Saharan Africa, are strongly urged to check with their primary care physicians on the required vaccinations before they go abroad, Quigley said.

“[People traveling to these areas] need to be vaccinated with the multivalent vaccine, which is the one for the more common types of meningitis and covers serotypes A, C, W and Y,” he said.

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