Meningitis is a disease caused by the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord known as the meninges. The inflammation is usually caused by an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
Meningitis may develop in response to a number of causes, usually bacteria or viruses, but meningitis can also be caused by physical injury, cancer or certain drugs.
The severity of illness and the treatment for meningitis differ depending on the cause. Thus, it is important to know the specific cause of meningitis.
Bacterial MeningitisBacteria, like Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae, can cause life-threatening infections that need immediate medical attention. There are vaccines to prevent some kinds of bacterial meningitis.
Viral MeningitisMeningitis can be caused by viruses, like enteroviruses, arboviruses and herpes simplex viruses. It’s serious, but less severe than bacterial meningitis, and people with normal immune systems usually get better on their own. There are vaccines to prevent some kinds of viral meningitis.
Fungal MeningitisFungal meningitis is caused by fungi like Cryptococcus and Histoplasma and is usually acquired by inhaling fungal spores from the environment. People with certain medical conditions like diabetes, cancer, or HIV are at higher risk of fungal meningitis.
Parasitic MeningitisThis type of meningitis is caused by parasites and is less common in developed countries. Parasites, like Angiostrongylus cantonensis, can contaminate food, water and soil.
Non-Infectious MeningitisSometimes meningitis is not spread from person to person, but is instead caused by cancers, systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus), certain drugs, head injury, and brain surgery.
Bacterial meningitis is contagious. The bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (i.e., by kissing).
If you have close contact with a person who has viral meningitis, you may become infected with the virus that made that person sick. However, you are not likely to develop meningitis as a complication of the illness.
Meningitis Versus Meningococcal Disease:
There IS a Difference
Having meningitis doesn't always mean you have meningococcal disease. And having meningococcal disease doesn’t necessarily mean you have meningitis. Meningococcal disease is any infection caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, or meningococcus. Any infection caused by that bacteria is known as meningococcal disease. One serious infection it can cause is meningococcal meningitis. More about meningococcal disease...
Resources for Healthcare Professionals
Clinical disease information, as well as vaccine recommendations and vaccination resources, for common causes of meningitis.
- Page last reviewed: April 1, 2014
- Page last updated: October 1, 2015
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