What To Know If Your Child Is Exposed to Meningitis

Is Meningitis Contagious?

A girl wearing a surgical mask
Most kids with meningitis are contagious, but that doesn't mean your kids will get meningitis if they are exposed. Michael Haegele/Getty Images

Question. A child at my son's daycare was diagnosed with meningitis. What do I do?

Answer. While that is scary news to get, if that is all of the information they gave you, then there is likely little risk to your child.

Types of Meningitis

Meningitis is classically defined as an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord.

The specific type of meningitis is determined by whether it is caused by:

  • virus: also called aseptic meningitis, it can be caused by enteroviruses, mumps, and herpes, etc.
  • bacteria: Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, Listeria monocytogenes, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
  • fungus: Cryptococcus, Histoplasma
  • parasite: uncommon
  • ameba: Naegleria fowleri

Surprisingly, there are even non-infectious causes of meningitis. These might be caused by a side-effect of a medication or as part of a systemic illness.

Has Your Child Been Exposed to Meningitis?

While meningitis can be contagious, it greatly depends on the type of meningitis to which they are exposed as to whether or not your child is at any risk.

So while the general advice is to "tell your doctor if you think you have been exposed to someone with meningitis," you should try and gather as much information as you can about the exposure.

This information will hopefully include the type of meningitis they were exposed to, specifically if it was bacterial or viral, the exact organism if it had been identified, and how close of an exposure it was—were they simply in the same school or actually sitting next to each other in the same room.

For example, while the CDC states that "people who are close contacts of a person with meningococcal or Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) meningitis are at increased risk of getting infected and may need preventive antibiotics," (typically Rifampin) they also state that "close contacts of a person with meningitis caused by other bacteria, such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, do not need antibiotics."

And you often don't need to take any preventive measures if you are exposed to someone with viral meningitis. While that might sound scary, it is basically because you typically aren't at big risk after this kind of exposure. You could get the same virus, but the chances that it would spread and cause meningitis are very unlikely.

Other types of meningitis, like primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) and fungal and parasitic meningitis, aren't even contagious. The Histoplasma fungus spreads from bird or bat droppings, for example, not from one person to another. And parasites typically spread from ingesting raw or undercooked food, or in the case of Baylisascaris procyonis, from ingesting something contaminated with infectious parasite eggs in raccoon feces.

Don't Vaccines Prevent Meningitis?

Vaccines can prevent a number of different types of meningitis.

From Hib and Prevnar to MMR and the meningococcal vaccines, our children routinely get several vaccines to prevent meningitis.

While these meningitis vaccines don't protect us from all of the different types of viruses, bacteria, and other organisms that can cause meningitis, they do prevent many of the most common.

What To Know If Your Child Is Exposed to Meningitis

Talk to your pediatrician or local health department if your children are exposed to meningitis. They might need preventative antibiotics if they are exposed to someone with Hib or meningococcal meningitis.


Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases (Eighth Edition), Volume 1, 2015

Red Book 2015. Committee on Infectious Diseases; American Academy of Pediatrics

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