What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. Many different germs cause this infection, some are viruses and some are bacteria.

There are two main types of meningitis, viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis.

The symptoms of both are so similar that medical tests are needed to tell the difference.

Viral meningitis is the most common form of meningitis and the least serious. It may be caused by a wide variety of common viruses. Antibiotics have no effect. People with viral meningitis almost always get completely well without treatment.

Bacterial meningitis is an extremely serious bacterial infection. It has the potential to cause long term complications, such as deafness or brain injury. It can also cause death. Bacterial meningitis requires immediate treatment with antibiotics. This form of meningitis is fairly rare.

The two most common types of bacterial meningitis are meningococcal (men-in-go-kawcal) and pneumococcal (new-mo-kawcal).

What are the signs and symptoms?

Someone with meningitis will become very sick.

It may take one or two days for meningitis to develop or it can take a matter of hours.


Symptoms of meningitis may include some of the following:
  • a severe headache;
  • a high temperature;
  • vomiting;
  • sensitivity to bright lights;
  • neck stiffness and joint pains;
  • drowsiness, confusion;
  • a rash of tiny, red-purple spots or bruises that may occur anywhere on the body.
Babies with meningitis may:
  • be difficult to wake;
  • have a high temperature;
  • be fussy;
  • have a loss of appetite;
  • be vomiting;
  • have a high pitched cry or be moaning;
  • have pale or blotchy skin;
  • have a rash of tiny, red-purple spots or bruises that may occur anywhere on the body.

Should you have these symptoms, call your family doctor or go immediately to the nearest hospital emergency department.

How is meningitis spread?

The virus or bacteria that may cause meningitis is usually spread when people cough, sneeze or kiss.

It can also be spread through saliva (spit) of an infected person when sharing items such as:

  • cigarettes;
  • lipstick;
  • cups, water bottles, pop cans, etc.;
  • toothbrushes;
  • musical instruments with mouthpieces;
  • mouth guards;
  • food or beverages.
How is the spread of meningitis prevented?

The best way to prevent the spread of meningitis is to not share anything that has been in someone else's mouth or in contact with their saliva. (Cups, water bottles, pop cans, toothbrushes, food, lipstick, etc.)

Other steps to prevent the spread of meningitis include hand washing, covering one's mouth when coughing or sneezing and throw away any used tissue.

Persons who have had contact with someone who has viral meningitis do not require any treatment. Casual contact, such as being in the same classroom or sitting at a table with an infected person, does not increase the risk of infection.

If a person has had close contact with someone who is infected with bacterial meningitis, antibiotics may be required to prevent infection, depending on the type of bacteria.

Is there a vaccine?

There is no vaccine that protects against all causes of meningitis.

Immunization against childhood diseases has helped to eliminate a specific type of bacterial meningitis.

The meningococcal-C vaccine is routinely given to babies who are 12 months of age in Ontario.

The Meningococcal Conjugate-ACYW 135 vaccine is routinely given to children in grade 7 in Ontario.

A meningococcal vaccine may also be given to people who have a higher risk of getting meningococcal disease (for example, if they have a medical condition).

Depending on the age of the child, a meningococcal vaccine is required for school or daycare attendance

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