Is Meningitis a Communicable Disease?

Mother and baby.
Mother and baby. Kohei Hara/The Image Bank/Getty Images

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, meningitis is defined as inflammation of the thin tissue, called the meninges,  that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis comes in one of two main forms: Bacterial, the more deadly of the two, and viral, which is the more common.

About The Meninges

Along with providing covering for the central nervous system (which, again, consists of the brain and spinal cord,) the meninges have two other functions.

First, they provide a framework for blood vessels and nerves. 

Secondly, they contain the cerebrospinal fluid, which is a watery substance that cushions the brain and spinal cord, as well as delivers nutrients and removes wastes.

Is Meningitis Communicable?

Although meningitis most commonly occurs in children under the age of one year, it can affect anyone, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

The Foundation says that spread of meningitis happens through air droplets and direct contact with an infected person. That said, you can become infected without ever developing the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that close contact with a person who has viral meningitis may result in infection with the virus that caused their illness, but this generally does not lead to meningitis in the infected person.

As far as bacterial meningitis goes, the Meningitis Foundation says about 10% of people carry the  bacteria, meningococcus, inside their nose or throat without showing symptoms or signs, and may be transmitting it to other people without realizing it.

The CDC adds that “most people who ‘carry’ the bacteria never become sick” from it.

Meningitis can be transmitted from person to person, but not by casual contact. Casual contact consists of things like shaking hands.  

But meningitis can be transmitted through intimate contact.

Both the National Meningitis Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) agree that exchanging respiratory secretions during close contact activities like kissing or coughing on someone can spread the disease.

They also say that while the bacteria that causes meningitis is very dangerous, it cannot live outside the body for long.

A virus that causes a cold spreads more quickly than the bacteria that causes (bacterial) meningitis.

Other ways meningitis may be contagious include having close or long contact with people you spend a lot of time with -  in your household or at your child’s day care, for example. Small children who are not yet toilet trained and their caretakers may unknowingly transmit the bacterial and/or viral form of this disease.

Prevent Meningitis Infection

Because meningitis spreads via direct contact with oral, respiratory or gastrointestinal (fecal) secretions from someone who carries the disease-causing organism, maintaining a high standard of personal hygiene may go a long way toward prevention. Mostly this just takes common sense.  For example:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Disinfect surfaces and counter tops using chlorine bleach mixed with water.
  • Avoid sharing personal hygiene items like toothbrushes.

And if you live with someone who has contracted the disease, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says you may need to take antibiotics on a prevention basis. 

It’s very important to communicate with your doctor if you think you’ve been exposed; although both types of meningitis need immediate medical attention, the bacterial (as opposed to the viral type) in particular, can be deadly — and it doesn’t take long.

 

The National Meningitis Foundation says that meningococcal disease can kill an otherwise healthy individual in 24-48 hours.

Sources:

Bacterial Meningitis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Meningitis Myths and Facts. National Foundation for Infectious Diseases website. Revised July 2015. 

Meningitis. MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. NIH.

National Meningitis Association. How is it spread? National Meningitis Association website. Accessed January 2016.

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