What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the meninges (the three membranes that cover the brain and spinal
cord). These membranes extend from the head down the spinal column from the neck to the base
of the spine. A crystal clear fluid called spinal fluid circulates over the brain and spinal cord.
Meningitis is sometimes referred to as spinal meningitis.
What causes meningitis?
Meningitis may be caused by a virus or a bacterium. It is important to know which kind of
meningitis it is in order to treat it. Viral meningitis is more common and usually less severe.
Bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result in death, brain damage, hearing loss or
learning disabilities. Bacterial meningitis is treatable once the type of bacteria is identified.
How is meningitis spread?
Some viruses that cause viral meningitis, enteroviruses, are most often spread through direct contact
with respiratory and throat secretions from an infected person. You might shake hands with
someone infected or touch something infected with the virus and then rub your own nose or mouth.
Other viruses, herpes viruses and HIV, are sexually transmitted. One type of bacterial meningitis,
the meningococcus, is contagious. These meningococcal bacteria are spread through close, intimate
and prolonged contact with another individual carrying the organism in their throat. Close contact
is defined as living in the same household, being sexually intimate or providing medical care.
What are the signs and symptoms?
When an infection occurs in or under the meninges, the spinal fluid becomes cloudy due to bacteria
or viruses, which create the formation of pus cells (white blood cells fighting the infection). As a
result of the infection, a person who is more than 2 years of age may develop some of these
• high fever
• severe headache and back pain
• stiff neck
• nausea and vomiting
• listlessness (or even unconsciousness)
• scattered rash that looks like small (pin point) to large (bruise-like) areas, especially on the arms
• discomfort when looking into bright lights
In newborns and babies, the typical symptoms may be much harder to detect. The parent or
caregiver may notice the baby moving more slowly or being inactive, being irritable, vomiting or
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How do you know if someone has meningitis?
A medical diagnosis can only be made by examining spinal fluid, a process known as a “spinal tap”
or lumbar puncture.
What type(s) of meningitis can persons get? Can any of these types be prevented?
1) Haemophilus influenzae type b, also known as Hib, can cause bacterial meningitis. Making sure
your child receives a Hib vaccine dose at 2, 4 and 6 months and a booster at 12-15 months (4
doses total) is very important.
2) Meningococcus is characterized by an upper respiratory infection resembling the common cold.
This is an acute illness which requires prompt treatment by a health care provider. The
incubation period is two to 10 days. Transmission occurs by direct contact with fresh nose and
throat discharges. The MPSV4 and MCV4 (Menactra) vaccines can help prevent four types of
bacterial meningitis. The MCV4 vaccine is recommended for young people at their regular
preadolescent medical checkup (ages 11-12). This vaccine is also recommended for a person
entering high school if he has not had it previously. College freshmen who will be living in
dormitories should also get the vaccine.
3) Pneumococcal is a form of meningitis that has a high fatality rate. The onset is usually sudden
with high fever and listlessness. Transmission occurs by direct and indirect contact with fresh
nose and throat discharges. PVC or Prevnar is a vaccine to prevent pneumoccocal bacteria. It is
for infants at 2, 4, 6 and 12 months of age.
How is meningitis treated?
Most cases of viral meningitis usually recover without treatment; although some specific illnesses do
recover more quickly with antibiotics (herpes, HIV). The bacterial type, although more serious and
more likely to cause complications is curable when treated with appropriate antibiotics. Persons with
meningococcal meningitis are usually placed in isolation until they have received antibiotics for 24
For more information, call the Guilford County Department of Public Health at 641-7777 or
PEC APP 06/09