Is Meningitis Contagious?

Mother and baby.
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Is Meningitis Contagious?

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, meningitis is inflammation of the thin tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.  This tissue is called the meninges.  There are two main forms of meningitis:  Bacterial, which is the more deadly, and viral, which is the more common.

What is the Purpose Of The Meninges?

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

First, it provides a framework for blood vessels and nerves.  And secondly, by covering the central nervous system, it allows cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to be contained within it.  The purpose of cerebrospinal fluid is to cushion the brain and spinal cord, deliver nutrients and remove wastes.

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases says that anyone can get meningitis, although it is most common in children under one year of age. 

Meningitis Transmission

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases says meningitis can be spread  through air droplets and direct contact with an infected person.

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 usually doesn't 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, etc.  That said, meningitis can be transmitted through intimate contact.

Both the National Meningitis Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say 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 are very dangerous, they cannot live outside the body for long. Translated:  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.

Because meningitis spreads by coming into direct contact with oral secretions from someone who has the disease, maintaining a good 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.

Preventing Meningitis Transmission the Medical Way

If you live with someone who has contracted the disease, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says you may need to take antibiotics preventively.

 

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.

If you are unsure of the risks for or symptoms of meningitis, take a few moments to go through the Meningitis Awareness Quiz to clarify your knowledge of the subject.

 

Sources:

Bacterial Meningitis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Accessed Jan 2016.

National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Meningitis Myths and Facts. National Foundation for Infectious Diseases website. Revised July 2015. Accessed January 2016.

Meningitis. MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. NIH. Accessed Jan 2016.

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

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