Understanding Meningitis

When meningitis strikes, it can be confusing and difficult to identify the symptoms because they are very similar to symptoms one would experience having the flu or a cold. This Understanding Meningitis section is a guide to helping you learn about the various types of meningitis, how they affect the body, how meningitis can be contracted, treated and prevented.



Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes (meninges) surrounding a person’s brain and spinal cord. The inflammation is typically caused an infection of the cerebral fluid.

Meningitis is typically caused by a bacteria, viruses, fungus or parasites that lead to an infection. Meningitis can also be caused by injury, illness or substances. When meningitis occurs, the membranes (meninges) become inflamed. Meninges are a collection of membranes the cover the brain and spinal cord. Their primary purpose is to protect the central nervous system. Inflammation of the meninges is caused by an infection of the fluid (cerebrospinal fluid) surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The most common form of meningitis is viral meningitis. The severity of meningitis varies depending on its form. There are 5 categories of meningitis – bacteria, viral, parasitic, fungal and non-infectious meningitis. Knowing the cause of meningitis is important because the infectiveness, spread, danger and treatment can differ.



Viral meningitis is the most common type of infectious meningitis in the United States. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment. Viral meningitis is rarely fatal, but can be debilitating and have long term after effects. Some people only feel the symptoms for 7-10 days while others may have symptoms lasting for 3-4 months, which can lead to hospitalization and prolonged absence of school or work. Viral meningitis is most often caused by enteroviruses and generally are at their highest risk of transmission during the summer to fall seasons.

Enteroviruses are a group of viruses associated with several syndromes and diseases. Enterovirus exposure is extremely high but less than 1 out of 1000 infections become viral meningitis. Not all people with enteroviruses develop meningitis. Neonates, infants, and adults are all at risk of contracting viral meningitis.

Viral meningitis is spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (kissing, coughing, sneezing, and sharing a cup, utensil, lip gloss, or cigarettes). Viral meningitis can also be contracted by coming in physical contact with another person’s bodily fluids who has meningitis, most likely through ingestion. Viral meningitis is also found in one’s stool. Herpes simplex and genital herpes can cause viral meningitis as well as chicken pox, rabies and HIV. The incubation period of viral meningitis may range from a few days to several weeks from the time of infection until the development of symptoms. Risk factors for development are exposure to someone with a recent viral infection or a suppressed immune system.
Viral meningitis is often referred to as spinal meningitis, aseptic meningitis and sterile meningitis interchangeably.

Mollarets Meningitis is a form of viral meningitis that is recurring. Mollarets meningitis is considered rare. However, recent research and studies have categorized it has being more common than initially thought. Mollarets meningitis has the same characteristics as other forms of meningitis except they are recurring and often are accompanied with long-term irregularity of the nervous system. Mollarets meningitis has been suggested to be cause by the herpes simplex virus, HSV-2 and HSV-1.


Bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result in brain damage, hearing loss, limb loss or learning disability. For bacterial meningitis, it is also important to know which type of bacteria is causing the meningitis because specific antibiotics would need to be administered.

Bacterial meningitis is extremely dangerous and can be life threatening. Bacteria meningitis is cause by bacteria instead of a virus as with viral meningitis. Age plays a large factor in the type of bacteria that causes meningitis. Group B Streptococci,Listeria monocytogenes, meningococcus and streptococcus pneumoniae are all form of bacterial meningitis. Bacteria meningitis is especially danger because it can spread quickly causing an epidemic. College students living in dormitories are at increased risk. Weakened immune systems from diseases, medication and surgical procedures can cause an individual to be considered high risk for bacterial meningitis. Travelers to foreign nations such as the sub-Saharan desert in Africa can be susceptible to meningitis. Head trauma can also potentially lead to meningitis if nasal bacteria is able to enter the meningeal space. Symptoms can appear quickly within 3-7 days. Seizures and coma’s are often a symptom of severe bacterial infection. Health people may carry the bacteria that causes meningitis in their nasal cavity and throat without becoming ill.

Meningococcal Disease is the combination of meningococcal meningitis (bacterial infection of the meninges of the brain and spinal cord) and meningococcemia (a blood infection). Meningococcal bacteria (neisseria meningitides bacteria) is the cause of meningococcal meningitis infections. Meningococcal meningitis requires immediate attention as it can cause severe damage and even death within 24-48 hours. Meningococcal meningitis survivors often times suffer severe long term effect. Everyone is susceptible to meningococcal meningitis unless vaccinated. However, there are cases that have not been preventable through vaccination.

Pneumococcal meningitis is cause when pneumonia bacteria (Streptococcus pneumonia) have infected the bloodstream and infect the meninges surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Pneumococcal meningitis may cause septicemia leading to severe damage to the organs. Like other forms of meningitis, pneumococcal meningitis is carried in the back of the nasal cavity and throat. It can be transmitted through coughing, saliva and the exchange of respiratory fluids within close quarters. If suspected, pneumococcal meningitis should be treated quickly. 1 in 5 people who become sick with pneumococcal meningitis will die. 25-50% will experience long term brain and neurological complications. Vaccinations are available. Upon the recommendation from a physician, those at risk such as children, the elderly and those susceptible to pneumococcus infections should be vaccinated.


Fungal meningitis develops after a fungus has spread through the bloodstream. The most common form of fungal meningitis is cryptococcal fungus meningitis. Fungal meningitis is often prevalent in those with weakened immune systems such as those with Cancer and AIDS. Fungal meningitis is not transmittable from person to person. Fungal meningitis occurs when fungus has been introduced to the boy through medications administered via injections such as steroids. Fungal meningitis is also thought to be contracted through inhalation in environments heavily contaminated with bird feces. Although not contagious, fungal meningitis carries the same symptoms as other forms of meningitis and it diagnosis will also need to be done by lumbar puncture.


Parasitic meningitis is caused by Naegleria fowler. Naegleria fowler is found in warm bodies of freshwater and can enter the body through the nose. Naegleria fowler causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). PAM is a brain infection that destroys brain tissue. Naegleria fowler is found worldwide. Parasitic meningitis caused by PAM is rare and little is known about the treatment and after effects of parasitic meningitis as most infections have been fatal.


Non-infectious meningitis is a form of meningitis that is not spread person to person. Non-infectious meningitis can be cause by disease, medication, drugs, head injury or surgery. Cancer and Lupus are common causes of non-infectious meningitis. The symptoms for non-infectious meningitis are similar to other forms of meningitis which may include: nausea, headaches, photophobia and vomiting.

Chemical meningitis is also classified as non-infectious meningitis. Neoplastic meningitis (meningitis carcinomatosa, leptomeningeal carcinomatosis) is directly related to cancerous cells.

Symptoms & Prevention

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