There are many things that can heighten the risk of contracting bacterial meningitis, including:
- Infants are at higher risk for bacterial meningitis than those in other age groups. However, anyone, regardless of age, can contract it.
- Those traveling to certain parts of Africa – particularly the “meningitis belt” of sub-Saharan Africa during dry season – could be at a greater risk of contracting meningitis. Also those traveling to Mecca during the annual Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage are also at a heightened risk.
- Certain medical conditions
- Particular diseases, surgeries, and medicines that can inhibit the immune system increase the risk for meningitis.
- Community setting
- Infectious illnesses are more likely to spread quickly wherever there are larger groups of people. College students living in dormitories and those in the military are at a heightened risk.
Bacterial meningitis can spread from one person to another. This often occurs in places where someone is in proximity to, or has prolonged contact with, a sick individual (e.g. in the same household, a daycare center, etc.). Such individuals are at an increased risk of contracting meningitis and may need to take preventative measures such as taking antibiotics.
Bacterial meningitis can be contracted in three different ways:
- Bacteria can sometimes be spread through contact/exchange with bodily fluids such as mucus or saliva (e.g. kissing), but isn’t spread via casual contact or by breathing the same air as someone who has meningitis.
- People with certain risk factors (e.g. head trauma, weakened immune system, etc.) can be more susceptible to meningitis due to exposure to other meningitis-causing bacteria, and not necessarily as a result of person-to-person contact.
- Consumption of food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes (a food-borne bacterium).
Meningitis is caused by bacteria and can be contagious, but it is not as contagious as viruses that can lead to the flu, or even the common cold.
If you believe you have been in contact with someone who has meningitis, see your physician or health care provider.
The most common symptoms of bacterial meningitis are sudden onset of headache, fever, and stiff neck. Other possible symptoms include nausea, vomiting, altered mental status (confusion), and an increased sensitivity to light (photophobia).
Meningitis symptoms can manifest themselves quickly, or take several days to appear. Generally, symptoms appear three to seven days after exposure.
See your physician as quickly as possible if you believe you may have meningitis.
For suspected bacterial meningitis cases, blood samples and cerebrospinal fluid (fluid near the spinal cord) are collected and sent to a lab for examination. The goal is to identify the infecting organism so it can be effectively treated. Antibiotics may be used to prevent the illness from worsening, and also limit the spread of the infection to others.
The most effective way to protect against certain forms of bacterial meningitis is to complete the recommended vaccine schedule. Vaccines exist for three different types of meningitis-causing bacteria:
- Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus)
- Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
- Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus)
For those in contact with (or in close proximity to) people with meningococcal meningitis, antibiotics may be recommended. They may also be appropriate for the entire household if one family member develops severe Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) and there is also a high-risk person residing in the home. Other measures that can be taken to help avoid meningitis include: avoiding contact with those who are sick, getting adequate sleep/rest, not smoking, and/or avoiding cigarette smoke altogether. Those at risk for severe disease such as the elderly, infants and people with weakened immune systems, in particular, should adhere to these measures.
Antibiotics are an effective way to treat bacterial meningitis. Diagnosing and treating the disease quickly is of vital importance. Treatment of bacterial meningitis with antibiotics can reduce the risk of death from the disease.