Meningitis is a serious and often contagious disease, most commonly caused by viral or bacterial infection. The illness, which can be deadly, is more likely to spread in situations where large groups of people congregate, such as daycare centers, dormitories and barracks, and to affect people with weak immune systems or head injuries.

Preventing Meningitis

There are vaccines that prevent most of the deadliest forms of bacterial meningitis, and all children should receive them, says David Levine, MD, FAAP, a pediatric and adolescent specialist at Summit Medical Group in New Jersey. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends meningitis vaccines for young adults living in groups, such as students in college dorms or sorority or fraternity houses. If you or your child may have an immune-compromising medical condition, speak with your doctor about an alternative vaccine schedule.

Causes of Meningitis

Any number of viruses and bacteria can cause meningitis, and treatment options vary, depending on how the infection is acquired.

Bacterial Causes

Some of the more common types of bacteria that can cause meningitis include:

  • E. coli
  • Listeria
  • varicella (chicken pox)
  • streptococcus pneumonia
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b

These various bacteria affect various age groups differently, and babies are more likely to be infected than any other age group. Like other bacterial infections, bacterial meningitis is most often treated with antibiotics, which may be given intravenously to treat the infection immediately; bacterial meningitis can be life-threatening. To determine the appropriate antibiotic, or whether an antibiotic is necessary, your doctor has to determine the type of bacteria that has caused the infection.

Viral Causes

Some of these common viruses can lead to viral meningitis:

  • enteroviruses
  • herpes
  • influenza
  • Epstein-Barr
  • viruses carried by mosquitoes and other insects

Like other viral infections, viral meningitis cannot be treated with antibiotics. Instead, patients are given medications to help reduce symptoms, like fever and headache pain. The virus itself usually clears up within a week to 10 days. If you have a particularly bad case of viral meningitis or a compromised immune system, you may need to stay in the hospital until you recover.

Other Causes

There are also less common, non-bacterial and non-viral causes of the disease. Fungi and parasites originating in contaminated water and soil can lead to rare varieties of meningitis; these are of particular concern to people whose immune systems are weakened from cancer, AIDS, or other diseases. These forms of meningitis are not contagious. Certain medications that weaken the immune system, as well as head injuries, brain surgery, or contaminated drug injections, can also lead to non-infectious, non-contagious types of meningitis. Treatment involves quickly managing any complications that arise.


The classic symptoms of meningitis are very similar to those of a virus or flu. They are:

  • severe headache
  • high fever
  • stiff neck

It is important to recognize these symptoms and get to a doctor as soon as possible to prevent unnecessary complications and damage that may occur if treatment is delayed.

Treatment Options for Meningitis

Although bed rest and medication are standard therapies for both bacterial and viral meningitis, the appropriate overall treatment plan depends on the source of infection.

If you or a loved one have symptoms, and know of or suspect exposure to an infectious form of meningitis, or any of the conditions that can lead to meningitis, contact your doctor as soon as possible. Without immediate treatment, you are at higher risk of developing serious complications, such as:

  • seizures
  • tinnitus
  • vision changes
  • memory loss
  • paralysis
  • permanent neurological problems

David Levine, MD, FAAP, reviewed this article.




Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Meningitis." Web. Page last updated 15 March 2012. Page accessed 22 June 2013.

Pollard JM, ed. "Meningitis- Identify...Act Quickly." Health Hints. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Family & Consumer Sciences. Web. Page updated 10 Jan. 2013. Page accessed 22 June 2013.