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Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)

4-minute read

Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) is a potentially serious infection that can cause meningitis (inflammation around the brain), epiglottitis (inflammation in the lower throat), and pneumonia. Hib is rare in Australia since babies are routinely vaccinated against it.

What is haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib)?

Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) bacteria live in the back of the throat of healthy people. Sometimes they invade the body and cause infections. Hib most commonly affects children who are aged under 5.

Infection with Hib can be serious. The infection can attack the membranes around the brain, epiglottis at the back of the throat, lungs, bones and joints, or tissues under the skin. This can happen quickly and can be fatal. 

Before the Hib vaccine was introduced in 1993, Hib was the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in young children. But Hib infections are now rare in Australia. 

Haemophilus influenzae type b is not the same as influenza (the flu). Influenza is caused by a virus, not the Hib bacteria.

How is Hib spread?

Hib is spread via droplets from the nose or throat. But since vaccination was introduced it’s been very uncommon for someone to catch Hib. Those most at risk are unvaccinated children under 5 and elderly people aged over 65.

Symptoms of Hib 

Symptoms appear between 2 and 4 days after infection. The symptoms depend on which part of the body is affected:

  • Meningitis: The person will have fever, a headache, a stiff neck, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light. Babies with meningitis will be drowsy, they won’t feed, and they may have a high fever and a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on the top of a baby’s head).
  • Epiglottitis: The person will have breathing difficulties, fever, paleness and won’t be able to swallow. Babies with epiglottis will dribble a lot and be very unsettled.
  • Pneumonia: They will have shortness of breath, fever, lack of energy, loss of appetite, headache, chest pain and cough.
  • Osteomyelitis: They will experience - swelling, inflammation and pain over the bone
  • Cellulitis: The person will have - red, hot, swollen and tender area of skin.

Both meningitis and epiglottis can develop quickly and are fatal if they are not treated. If you think your child has one of these conditions, take them straight to a hospital emergency department or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Diagnosis of Hib

Hib is diagnosed with a blood test or by performing a lumbar puncture to sample the fluid, known as cerebrospinal fluid, that sits around the brain and spinal cord.

Treatment for Hib

Treatment for Hib will depend on the type of infection. If you are diagnosed with the condition, you will normally need to take antibiotics for 10 days. Sometimes you will need to be cared for in hospital. You may also need medicine to control the fever, pain relief, extra fluids and help with breathing.

Prevention of Hib

Vaccination against Hib is recommended for all babies from 2 months of age. They will need 3 doses – at 2, 4, and 6 months – and a booster at 18 months. People with certain medical conditions should also be vaccinated against Hib.

Children diagnosed with Hib should stay away from childcare or school until they have finished their course of antibiotics. If you are in close contact with someone who is infected with Hib, a short course of antibiotics may prevent you from catching the disease.

More information

For more information on immunisation in Australia, visit the National Immunisation Schedule web page.

If you’re concerned because you have symptoms of Hib, see your doctor or use healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to find out what to do next.

Last reviewed: August 2018

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