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How Contagious Is Meningitis?

teenager washing her hands

Overview

Meningitis is a swelling of the membranes around the spinal cord and brain. It can be caused by fungi, parasites, or even injury. Most often, it’s caused by viral or bacterial infection. Children are especially vulnerable to bacterial meningitis.

Symptoms begin within a week after exposure. Common symptoms include headache, fever, and skin rash. Some types of meningitis are even life-threatening. You should consult your doctor if you suspect you have an infection.

Whether meningitis is contagious or not depends on the cause and the type.

Fungal meningitis

Fungal meningitis is usually caused by a type of fungus called Cryptococcus. This rare type of meningitis is most likely to strike people with weak immune systems. Fungal meningitis is not contagious.

Parasitic meningitis

Parasitic meningitis is extremely rare and life-threatening. It’s caused by a microscopic amoeba called Naegleria fowleri. This parasite enters the body through the nose, usually in contaminated lakes and rivers. You can’t get it by drinking contaminated water and it isn’t contagious.

Non-infectious meningitis

Meningitis isn’t always the result of an infection. It can develop as a result of head injury or brain surgery. It can also be caused by certain medications, lupus, or cancer. Non-infectious meningitis is not contagious.

Viral meningitis

Viral meningitis is the most common type, but it’s not usually life-threatening.

The enteroviruses that cause meningitis can spread through direct contact with saliva, nasal mucus, or feces. They easily spread through coughing and sneezing. Direct or indirect contact with an infected person increases your risk of getting the same virus.

But while you may become infected with the virus, you’re unlikely to develop meningitis as a complication.

Arboviruses that cause meningitis can be transmitted through insects like mosquitos and ticks. Infection is most likely to occur in summer and early fall.

Bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is a serious illness and can be life-threatening. It’s most often caused by Neisseria meningitidis or Streptococcus pneumoniae. Both are contagious. Meningococcal bacteria can’t survive outside the body for long, so you’re unlikely to get it from being near someone who has it.

Prolonged close contact with an infected person may increase risk of transmission. This is a concern in daycare centers, schools, and college dormitories.

The bacteria can also spread through:

  • saliva
  • mucus
  • kissing
  • sharing eating utensils
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • contaminated food

Some of us have meningitis-causing bacteria in our throats or noses. Even if we don’t get sick, we can still spread it to others.

According to the World Health Organization, the incubation period is between two and 10 days. The largest concentration of meningococcal disease is in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the CDC, about 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis are reported each year in the United States.

How to avoid meningitis

You can reduce your risk of getting or spreading viruses and bacteria by taking a few precautions:

  • Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap. Wash for a full 20 seconds, taking care to clean under fingernails. Rinse and dry thoroughly.
  • Wash your hands before eating, after using the toilet, after changing a diaper, or after tending to someone who is ill.
  • Don’t share eating utensils, straws, or plates.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • Stay up to date with immunizations and booster shots for meningitis.
  • Ask your doctor about immunizations before traveling to countries with higher rates of meningitis.

If you have signs of meningitis, seek medical attention immediately.

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