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Diseases & Topics

Meningitis

Meningitis is an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, usually caused by an infection of the fluid that surrounds them. Meningitis is also referred to as spinal meningitis. Meningitis can be a serious and even life-threatening illness.

Meningitis may develop in response to a number of causes — usually bacteria or viruses — but it can also be caused by physical injury, cancer or certain drugs. The severity of illness and the treatment for meningitis differ depending on the cause, so any person with meningitis symptoms should see their doctor as soon as possible. Symptoms of meningitis infection may include a sudden onset of fever, headache and stiff neck, sometimes accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea or sensitivity to light. Infants may appear slow or inactive, be irritable and vomit or feed poorly.

Bacterial meningitis is usually more severe than viral, fungal or parasitic meningitis. Fortunately, vaccines are available to protect against the most common types of bacterial meningitis: pneumococcal meningitis (caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria), meningococcal meningitis (caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis), and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) meningitis. Hib meningitis was by far the most common type among children before Hib vaccines were widely used but it is now rare among vaccinated children.

The best way to protect against bacterial meningitis illnesses is to be vaccinated. Young children should be immunized against Hib as part of their routine childhood immunizations. Meningococcal disease is more often contracted during adolescence, so routine vaccination with meningococcal conjugate vaccine is recommended for all children 11 or 12 years of age, with a booster dose at age 16 years. Pneumococcal vaccines are recommended for both young children and for the elderly, as both groups are at increased risk for pneumococcal invasive disease, which can result in pneumococcal meningitis.

The bacteria that cause meningococcal meningitis can spread to other people who have had close or prolonged contact to a patient with this disease, such as people in the same household or daycare center, or anyone with direct contact with a patient's oral secretions (such as a boyfriend or girlfriend). People who qualify as close contacts of a person with meningococcal meningitis should receive antibiotics to prevent them from getting the disease.

Viral meningitis can result from infection with many common viruses, including enteroviruses and herpes simplex virus. Less often, viral meningitis can occur as a complication of infection with mumps, measles, chickenpox, flu or mosquito-borne viruses (arboviruses) like EEE (Eastern Equine Encephalitis) and LAC (La Crosse Encephalitis). Getting immunized against vaccine-preventable viruses, practicing good hygiene including washing your hands frequently, and avoiding mosquito bites are good ways to avoid viral illnesses that can develop into viral meningitis.

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