Answers FAQ

Meningitis FAQs

Reviewed by Jerry Balentine, DO, FACEP

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Q:Meningitis refers to inflammation of the brain. True or False?

A:False. The term encephalitis refers to an inflammation of the brain.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes (called meninges) that surround the brain and spinal cord.

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Q:Is meningitis contagious?

A:Yes, some forms of bacterial meningitis are especially contagious.

The bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (such as coughing, for example).

Bacterial meningitis caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis (also called meningococcal meningitis) is the most important example. People in the same household, dormitory, daycare center, or anyone with direct contact with a patient's oral secretions would be considered at increased risk of acquiring the infection.

People who qualify as close contacts of a person with meningitis caused by N. meningitidis, including a healthcare professional involved in close contact with a patient, should be considered for antibiotic prophylaxis — taking antibiotics to prevent someone from getting the disease.

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Q:Do people die from bacterial meningitis?

A:Yes, people do (can) die from bacterial meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis is the most serious form of meningitis. The disease occurs in about 3,000-5,000 people in the United States every year.

Meningitis is usually caused by one of a number of bacteria. The most common is Streptococcus pneumoniae. Neisseria meningitidis can cause outbreaks in crowded conditions, such as college dormitories or military barracks. Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) can also cause meningitis in adults and children, but it is becoming less common because children now receive the Hib vaccine in infancy.

Approximately 10%-25% of the time, even with treatment, bacterial meningitis can be fatal. If bacterial meningitis progresses rapidly, in 24 hours or less, death may occur in more than half of those who develop it, even with proper medical treatment.

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Q:Alcoholism is a risk factor for bacterial meningitis. True or False?

A:True. Alcoholism is a risk factor for contracting meningitis.

This is because excess alcohol consumption may lead to immune deficiency, causing increased susceptibility to certain diseases like bacterial meningitis. Additional risk factors for bacterial meningitis include the following:
- Adults older than 60 years of age
- Children younger than 5 years of age
- People with sickle cell anemia
- People with cancer, especially those receiving chemotherapy
- People who have received transplants and are taking drugs that suppress the immune system
- People with diabetes
- Those recently exposed to meningitis at home
- People living in close quarters (military barracks, dormitories)
- IV drug users
- People with shunts in place for hydrocephalus

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Q:What are classic symptoms of meningitis?

A:The classic symptoms of meningitis are fever, headache, and a stiff neck.

Not everyone with meningitis has all of these symptoms. Only approximately 45% of people with meningitis have all 3 of these classic signs. Almost everyone, however, has at least 1 of the classic symptoms.

Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, confusion, disorientation, drowsiness or sluggishness, sensitivity to bright light, and poor appetite. More severe symptoms include seizure and coma.

Note: Anyone experiencing symptoms of encephalitis or meningitis should see a doctor immediately or go immediately to the nearest emergency room if a doctor is not reachable right away. The person who is sick should not drive. Call 911 if transportation is not available.

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Q:Who is most likely to develop bacterial meningitis? An obese woman, a newborn baby, or a college student?

A:A newborn baby is most likely to develop bacterial meningitis.

This is because the highest incidence of meningitis is between birth and 2 years of age.

Still, childhood Hib, meningococcal, pneumococcal, MMR, and varicella vaccines prevent many of the diseases that lead to meningitis, and there is a meningitis vaccine that is recommended for teens.

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Q:There are only 2 types of meningitis: bacterial meningitis and viral meningitis. True or False?

A:False. There are 5 types of meningitis:

Bacterial Meningitis
- Caused by bacteria; potentially life-threatening

Viral Meningitis
- Caused by viruses like enteroviruses and herpes viruses; serious, but rarely fatal

Parasitic Meningitis
- Caused by parasites found in food, water, soil; less common in developed countries

Fungal Meningitis
- Usually acquired by inhaling fungal spores; higher risk in immunocompromised patients such as patients with diabetes, cancer, or HIV

Non-infectious Meningitis
- Not contagious; can be caused by cancers, lupus, certain drugs, head injury, and brain surgery

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Q:Which procedure is most likely used to test for meningitis?

A: A spinal tap (or lumbar puncture) is the most common method for obtaining a sample of the fluid in the spinal canal to determine a diagnosis for encephalitis or meningitis.

Additional tests can include evaluation of the blood for signs of infection and possible presence of bacteria and brain scanning (such as CT scanning or MRI scan).

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Q:Vaccination is the only way to prevent meningitis. True or False?

A:False.

The viruses and bacteria that cause meningitis spread when someone has close contact with an infected person, such as a very close conversation or kissing. Viruses or bacteria may also be obtained from touching infected surfaces such as a doorknob, and then touching the mouth or nose.

Basic steps to avoid the spread of organisms, such a hand washing and covering your mouth when coughing, will also help in decreasing the risk of spreading meningitis.

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Q:Which medicines can fight viral meningitis?

A:Viral meningitis cannot be treated with medicine.

Antibiotics do not help viral infections, so they are not useful in the treatment of viral meningitis. Most patients completely recover at home on their own within 7 to 10 days. A hospital stay may be necessary in more severe cases or for people with weak immune systems.

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