You may have heard the terms meningitis and meningococcal disease. They sound very similar, which causes some people to think meningitis and meningococcal disease are the same thing. The fact is all meningitis is not meningococcal disease. This may seem confusing but has a simple explanation. Knowing the basic facts will help you protect yourself and your loved ones from meningococcal meningitis and other potentially life-threatening infections. Meningitis and meningococcal disease are not the same thing. Meningitis refers to any kind of inflammation of the meninges—the three membranous tissue layers that cover the brain and spinal cord. The inflammation of the central nervous system might be caused by a virus like varicella zoster (chickenpox), or by a common bacterium like Streptococcus. Neither of these types of meningitis can be called meningococcal disease. There are also non-infectious causes of meningitis, such as traumatic brain or spinal cord injury. Certain immune conditions can also cause it. Meningococcal disease can only be caused by one specific bacterium: Neisseria meningitidis (also known as meningococcus). This particular germ can cause the meningococcal form of bacterial meningitis, but it also causes other types of meningococcal disease. What is meningococcal disease? Any illness caused by N. meningitidis can be described as meningococcal disease. Usually, this germ attacks the meninges and causes a type of bacterial meningitis, but sometimes it doesn’t infect the meninges at all. Instead, it might stay in the bloodstream and cause a severe systemic infection called meningococcemia that can lead to sepsis, shock and even death. Meningococcus also can infect the lungs, heart tissue, or genitourinary organs. All of these types of illnesses are meningococcal disease because they are caused by the meningococcus germ. How does meningococcal disease spread? Meningococcal diseases occur when a person becomes infected with the N. meningitidis bacterium. Similar to many other bacteria, this germ spreads through respiratory secretions, including microscopic saliva and mucus droplets. Meningococcal disease can only be transmitted via close person-to-person contact, such as by kissing or by sneezing directly on someone. Meningococcal disease vaccines protect against meningitis. Most people correctly use the term ‘meningitis vaccine’ to refer to the meningococcus immunization. Approval for this vaccine against the meningococcus bacterium came in the United States in 1974. Today, the vaccine is more properly referred to as ‘meningococcal disease vaccine’ because it protects against all types of disease caused by N. meningitidis, not just meningococcal meningitis. Another term for it is meningococcal vaccine. The meningococcal disease vaccines represent an important way to reduce your risk of contracting meningococcal meningitis (and other forms of meningococcal disease). Most healthy adults don’t need the immunization, but all children should be vaccinated against meningococcal diseases at age 11 or 12, with a booster dose at age 16. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommend meningococcal immunization for certain categories of infants and children under age 10, as well as some adults. Talk with your doctor about which members of your household should get vaccinated, and on what timetable. Meningococcal meningitis has become a rare illness, thanks to the meningococcal vaccines. Getting the immunization is the best way to prevent coming down with any type of meningococcal disease—including meningitis.