Causes and Symptoms of Meningitis

Neisseria meningitidis bacteria

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges—the membranes that wrap and insulate the brain and nerves in the central nervous system. The meninges protect and insulate the critical components of the central nervous system from insult or damage.

Meningitis can be caused by either bacterial or viral infections. It can also be caused by certain types of injury and cancer, although these forms of meningitis are rare.

Symptoms of meningitis may include stiff neck, vomiting, fever, and headache. Although these symptoms are similar to those of encephalitis, encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain itself, while meningitis affects the membranes that surround it.

Examples: One common type of bacterial meningitis is caused by meningococcal disease. Meningococcal meningitis can be prevented by the meningococcal vaccine. The CDC recommends this vaccine for children and adolescents aged 11 to 18, college students living in dormitories, and other individuals at high risk of exposure to meningococcal bacteria including military recruits.

Is Meningitis Sexually Transmitted?

Only rarely is meningitis sexually transmitted. More often it is caused by infections that are passed on in less intimate ways. However, there are several sexually transmitted diseases that can lead to meningitis. 

Untreated syphilis can go on to infect the brain.

It takes many years to get that far, but syphilis infection can become meningitis. Fortunately, this is generally avoidable with appropriate testing and treatment. However, the progression to syphilitic meningitis may be faster in people who are immunocompromised. For example, this would be the case in people coinfected with syphilis and HIV.

People with HIV are also more susceptible to other forms of bacterial and viral meningitis. However, this does not imply that meningitis is sexually transmitted. Instead, the damage that the sexually transmitted virus does to the immune system increases the likelihood of an infection of the central nervous system. Meningitis is a major form of death due to HIV in some countries.

In rare cases, HSV-2 infection can lead to meningitis. Congenital herpes can also cause encephalitis and related brain swelling in infants.


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CDC "Meningococcal Vaccines - What You Need To Know."

Spinner CD, Noe S, Schwerdtfeger C, Todorova A, Gaa J, Schmid RM, Busch DH, Neuenhahn M. Acute hypophysitis and hypopituitarism in early syphilitic meningitis in a HIV-infected patient: a case report. BMC Infect Dis. 2013 Oct 17;13:481. doi: 10.1186/1471-2334-13-481.

Steiner I, Benninger F. Update on herpes virus infections of the nervous system. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2013 Dec;13(12):414. doi: 10.1007/s11910-013-0414-8