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Bacterial Meningitis

This fact sheet answers frequently asked questions about meningitis.

Meningitis is an infection of the lining of the brain, spinal fluid, and spinal cord.

The basics

What causes bacterial meningitis?

Many different kinds of bacteria can cause meningitis. Some viruses can also cause meningitis. You need a sample of spinal fluid to find out if someone has meningitis, and which germ caused it.

What kinds of bacteria can cause meningitis?

Neisseria meningitidis are bacteria that usually infect the very young and the very old. However, they can cause illness in people of any age. At any time, between 5-20% of people carry these bacteria in their throats without getting sick. The bacteria spread through saliva during kissing, sharing of food, drinks or smoking, and sneezing or coughing. Those exposed to this kind of bacterial meningitis may need antibiotics for protection. This type of meningitis is also called “meningococcal.” There is a vaccine, called meningococcal vaccine. The vaccine is for certain groups of people to help prevent meningococcal meningitis.

Haemophilus influenzae type b, called Hib, can also cause meningitis. The Hib vaccine prevents infants and young children from getting Hib disease. Most adults are resistant to this type of meningitis. The vaccine protects most children under 5 years of age. People exposed to the saliva of an infected person may need antibiotics.

Streptococcus pneumoniae are bacteria that can cause “pneumococcal” meningitis. These bacteria are commonly found in the throat. Most people who carry these bacteria in their throats remain healthy. However, people with chronic medical problems, weakened immune systems, and those who are very young or very old, are at high risk. Meningitis caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae is not contagious. There are two vaccines that can protect people against infections caused by these bacteria.

Meningitis from these other bacteria is rare and not thought to be contagious.


What are the symptoms of meningitis?

Symptoms of meningitis may appear suddenly. Signs of meningitis include:

  • fever
  • severe headache
  • stiff neck or neck pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • rash

Changes in behavior such as confusion, sleepiness, and trouble waking up can also be symptoms. In some infants, the only signs of meningitis may be crankiness or tiredness and lack of appetite. Babies with meningitis usually run a fever, but exceptions can occur. Anyone who has these symptoms should see a health care provider right away.


How is meningitis spread?

Many of the viruses that cause meningitis spread through saliva or feces. The bacteria that cause meningitis are usually spread through contact with infected saliva. Most people may already have immunity (natural protection) against many of these germs. Most of the germs that cause meningitis can spread from person to person, but they will not always cause illness.

How can I prevent meningitis?

Health care providers and public health officials may recommend antibiotics to prevent disease for those exposed to saliva from an infected person. Frequent handwashing with soap and water helps prevent the spread of many viruses and bacteria. Not sharing food, drinks, or eating utensils with other people can also help stop the spread of germs. In addition, there are vaccines to protect against several different types of meningitis.

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