Meningitis is the inflammation of the thin tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, called meninges. There are several types of meningitis. The most common is viral meningitis. The virus is introduced into the body through the nose or mouth and travels to the brain. Although rare, bacterial meningitis can be deadly. It typically starts with bacteria that cause a cold-like infection. Pneumococcal infections and meningococcal infections are the most common causes of bacterial meningitis. If not treated immediately, it can have serious health implications.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for viral meningitis include:

  • Weak immune systems
  • Children younger than 5 years old

Risk factors for bacterial meningitis include:

  • Age
  • Community Setting (such as college campuses)
  • Certain medical conditions
  • Working with meningitis-causing pathogens
  • Travel

How it Spreads

Close contact with a person who has viral meningitis can infect you with the virus that made that person sick. However, you are not likely to develop meningitis.

Viruses that can cause meningitis spread in different ways:

Typically, the germs that cause bacterial meningitis spread from one person to another. Some germs, such as Listeria monocytogenes can spread through food. Here are some of the most common examples of how people spread each type of bacteria to each other:

  • People spread Hib and Streptococcus pneumoniae by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who breathe in the bacteria.
  • People spread Neisseria meningitidis by sharing respiratory or throat secretions (saliva or spit). This typically occurs during close (coughing or kissing) or lengthy (living in the same household) contact.
  • People can get Escherichia coli by eating food prepared by people who did not wash their hands well after using the toilet.

People usually get sick from Escherichia coli and Listeria monocytogenes by eating contaminated food.

Signs & Symptoms

Symptoms associated with viral meningitis among adults are fever, headache, stiff neck, sensitivity of bright light, nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite, sleepiness, and lethargic. Most people with viral meningitis usually get better on their own within 7 to 10 days. Similar signs and symptoms are seen with bacterial meningitis; however, bacterial meningitis is usually severe and can cause serious complications such as brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disabilities.


In regards to viral meningitis, there is no specific treatment. Most people who are diagnosed with the virus completely recover on their own with 7 to 10 days. Those that require treatment will typically be given antiviral medication. Bacterial meningitis is treated with a number of antibiotics. Early treatment is critical.


  • Wash your hands with often with soap and water
  • Avoid touching your face with soiled hands
  • Avoid close contact such as kissing, hugging, or sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve, NOT YOUR HANDS
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
  • Stay home when sick

If you suspect you may have signs and symptoms of meningitis, please seek medical care immediately.