Haemophilus influenzae

Most commonly haemophilus influenza type b or Hib disease

Haemophilus influenzae is a group of bacteria that can cause mild to very serious illness, particularly in young children. The information on this page relates to the most common type, haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) disease.

Key points

  1. There are 6 types of haemophilus influenzae bacteria (Hia through to Hif). They cause illnesses affecting your breathing, joints, bones and nervous system. Some of these illnesses can cause lifelong disability or death.
  2. The most common type, haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib disease), causes 95% of serious haemophilus influenzae disease.
  3. Haemophilus influenzae bacteria is easily spread from person to person through direct contact or by sneezing and coughing.
  4. Haemophilus influenzae causes infections that range from mild ear infections to serious bloodstream infections or meningitis. It doesn't cause influenza (the flu). 
  5. Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself or your child against Hib disease. 
Act quickly!  If you have a baby who is sick with sudden fever, shaking/chills, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, stiff neck, disorientation and/or sensitivity to light, take action immediately. Urgent hospital care is usually needed as babies can get very sick very quickly.

What is Hib disease?

Haemophilus influenzae bacteria live in the nose and throat of most healthy people without causing illness. The bacteria are easily passed from person to person by coughing, sneezing and close contact. Not everyone who catches or carries the bacteria gets sick. If the bacteria get into other parts of your body, it can cause infection.

The infections can range from minor infections to serious diseases. They include:

  • ear infections
  • pneumonia (infection of your lung)
  • meningitis (infection of the covering of your spinal cord and brain)
  • epiglottitis (windpipe inflammation which can lead to trouble breathing)
  • osteomyelitis (infections of your bones and joints)
  • bacteraemia (blood infection)
  • cellulitis (skin infection).

The time between exposure and feeling symptoms (the incubation period) of haemophilus influenzae disease is uncertain, but may be as little as just a few days.

Who is most at risk of getting Hib disease?

Haemophilus influenzae bacteria are common, but not everyone who has them will get sick. Those most at risk of serious disease are children under 5 years and people who have a weakened immune system. Being in childcare, having school-aged brothers and sisters, and living with lots of other people can also increase the risk of getting Hib disease.

What are the symptoms of Hib disease?

The symptoms of Hib disease are not the same for everyone. The symptoms vary, depending on where the infection is. A baby or young child may only have fever and be irritable. Find out about the symptoms of the following conditions that can be caused by Hib:

Meningitis and epiglottitis can develop quickly and can rapidly cause death if left untreated. You need to see a doctor immediately for treatment.

  • About 1 in 20 people with meningitis die and 1 in 3 survivors has permanent brain or nerve damage.
  • About 1 in 100 people with epiglottitis die.

How is Hib disease diagnosed and treated?

Your doctor will diagnose and treat Hib disease based on your symptoms and test results. Read about the diagnosis and treatment of conditions caused by Hib disease:

How can I prevent Hib disease?

Vaccination of babies and those at increased risk due to underlying medical conditions can greatly help to prevent Hib disease and bacterial spread.

All babies in New Zealand should be vaccinated against Hib disease as part of their free childhood vaccinations at 6 weeks, 3 months, 5 months and 15 months old.

It is very difficult to avoid coming into contact with the bacteria that cause this illness, so as well as being vaccinated you can reduce your chances of becoming infected or infecting others by:

  • regularly washing your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand gel
  • covering your nose and mouth with your arm or a tissue when you cough or sneeze.

If you are living with an infected person you may be offered antibiotics to prevent you from catching the disease.

Why is vaccination so important?

Babies and young children are at particular risk of infection because their immune systems are not fully developed. However, they can be protected by being vaccinated against Hib disease. Hib disease has been almost eliminated in countries where Hib vaccine is used.

Vaccination against Hib disease is free as part of the National Immunisation Schedule in New Zealand for babies at 6 weeks, 3 months, 5 months and 15 months of age.

  • If your baby misses these dates, they can have catch-up vaccinations. Talk to your doctor or nurse about this.
  • The vaccine is given by injection into the arm or leg.
  • Children and adults with medical conditions that increase their risk of Hib disease are eligible for free vaccination against Hib.

Learn more

Haemophilus influenzae type b disease The Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ, 2017
Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) Ministry of Health, NZ, 2017
Prevention – making a decision about vaccination Ministry of Health, NZ, 2017

References

  1. Childhood immunisation HealthEd, NZ
  2. Haemophilus influenzae type b disease Immunisation Handbook 2020, NZ

Reviewed by

Dr Mark Taylor has been a specialist GP for over 25 years, as well as a travel medicine specialist for over 20 years, which has included being expedition doctor in places like the Amazon. He is also a GP liaison at Waikato DHB. Previous sports medicine experience includes travelling overseas with several New Zealand sports teams, including to the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Mark Taylor, GP Liaison Integrated Care, Waikato DHB Last reviewed: 22 Oct 2020