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Hib Disease (Haemophilus Influenzae Type b)

What Is Hib Disease?

Hib is short for Haemophilus influenzae type b, a type of bacteria. It can cause serious illnesses, some of which can be life-threatening.

Hib infections in the U.S. are rare thanks to the Hib vaccine. In developing nations where the vaccine is less used, though, Hib disease is still a major health concern.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Hib Disease?

Symptoms of Hib infection depend on the type of illness it caused. These include:

  • Meningitis: This is an infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It can cause fever, headache, stiff neck, and vomiting. Very small babies might have seizures, not feed well, or become very cranky or sleepy. This life-threatening disease needs treatment right away.
  • Epiglottitis: This severe throat infection can make it hard to swallow or talk. A person might drool and have a very hard time breathing. This too can be life-threatening if not treated right away.
  • Pneumonia: This lung infection can cause fever, coughing, and trouble breathing.
  • Cellulitis: This skin infection makes an area of skin red, painful, and swollen.
  • Arthritis: This joint infection can lead to pain, swelling, and redness in a joint.
  • Ear infections: These are a common cause of ear pain.

Sometimes Hib is only found in the bloodstream, where it can travel throughout the body. This is called bacteremia. Children with bacteremia may only have a fever or look very sick. Bacteremia can lead to any of the above illnesses or to sepsis, a dangerous whole-body response to infection. Sepsis can damage many organs or even cause death if not treated right away.

Despite its name, Hib doesn't cause influenza (the flu). A virus, not bacteria, causes the flu.

What Causes Hib Disease?

Often, Hib bacteria live in a person's nose and throat without causing any problems. But sometimes they spread to other body parts and cause illness.

Someone who has Hib in their nose and throat can also spread it to other people. This can happen when they are sick with Hib illness or even when they have no symptoms at all. It spreads when they sneeze or cough saliva (spit) out of their mouth or nose.

Who Gets Hib Disease?

Hib disease can happen at any age, but is most common in:

  • babies and kids younger than 5 years old. This is especially true for kids who haven't had the Hib vaccine or didn't get all doses.
  • the elderly
  • people with a weak immune system

How Is Hib Diagnosed?

To diagnose Hib disease, doctors do an exam and ask about symptoms. They also might take a small sample of blood, spinal fluid, or another body fluid for testing.

How Is Hib Disease Treated?

Doctors treat Hib disease with antibiotics to kill the bacteria. Other treatments used depend on the illness the Hib infection causes.

Can Hib Disease Be Prevented?

The main way to prevent Hib disease is to make sure that kids get the Hib vaccine as infants. This vaccine is very effective and routinely given throughout the U.S.

Kids usually get the vaccine as a series of shots at age:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months (some vaccine brands don't need the 6-month shot)

They get a booster dose at age 12–15 months.

Children who haven't had the Hib vaccine or didn't get all the shots should stay away from anyone who might have Hib disease until they get all doses.

If your child didn't get the Hib vaccine as a baby, talk to your doctor. Most kids over age 5 won't need the vaccine. But it may be recommended for kids with immune system problems, such as asplenia (a missing or faulty spleen), sickle cell disease, HIV, or cancer.

What Else Should I Know?

If your child hasn't had the full course of Hib vaccines and shows any signs of Hib illness, call a doctor right away. Also call a doctor if your child has a fever and you think they might have been around someone with Hib disease.

Hib infection can cause illnesses that are medical emergencies. If your child has trouble breathing or other severe symptoms, call 911 or go to a hospital ER right away.

Date reviewed: October 2019