Meningitis is swelling of the meninges, the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. It is usually infectious and can spread from person to person. However, some types of meningitis are not contagious.

A bacterial or viral infection can cause meningitis and become infectious. However, other causes of the disease include injuries or cancer.

Some forms of meningitis spread through tiny, infected droplets when people with the disease cough, sneeze, or come into close contact with others.

About 1 in 10 people carry the meningitis bacteria in their body without experiencing any symptoms. These people may pass on the disease without knowing it. Individuals can prevent the spread of viral and bacterial meningitis by taking certain steps, such as getting vaccinated and regularly washing their hands.

This article looks at the different types of meningitis and how they can spread.

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Viral meningitis is the most common form of meningitis but is typically mild. However, any form of meningitis can quickly turn serious and always requires an evaluation from a doctor.

Viral meningitis spreads through close contact with someone who has the virus, but most people that become infected will not develop the disease. Viruses that can cause viral meningitis include:

Symptoms of viral meningitis typically develop within 3–6 days after exposure to the virus. The condition is most common in children under 5 and people with a weakened immune system.

Fungal meningitis may follow a fungal infection in another part of the person’s body. However, fungal meningitis is not contagious between people. Examples of types of fungi that could cause the disease include:

  • Cryptococcus
  • Histoplasma
  • Blastomyces
  • Coccidioides
  • Candida

Many of these fungi live in soil or the environment. People can contract fungal meningitis after breathing in fungal spores.

Some people have these fungi living inside their skin without any problems, such as Candida. However, others will develop fungal meningitis from exposure to Candida. For example, a person with a weakened immune system will be vulnerable to the disease.

Parasitic meningitis is a rare form of the disease that develops from consuming meat or other foods contaminated with certain parasites. People do not usually pass parasitic meningitis between each other.

Examples of parasites that can cause parasitic meningitis include:

  • Angiostrongylus cantonensis
  • Baylisascaris procyonis
  • Gnathostoma spinigerum

Bacterial meningitis is a serious condition due to exposure to several types of bacteria. In the United States, the most common causes of bacterial meningitis are:

How the bacteria spreads depends on its type:

  • Group B Streptococcus and E. coli typically pass to babies during childbirth.
  • Haemophilus influenzae, Neisseria meningitidis, and Streptococcus pneumoniae typically spread through coughing or sneezing.
  • E. coli can spread through contaminated food, particularly when people prepare food with unwashed hands.

Bacterial meningitis is a severe condition that can be life threatening. It is important for anyone with signs of meningitis to seek urgent medical help. A doctor will prescribe antibiotics to immediately treat the condition.

Other conditions can cause meningitis without an infection, such as:

Meningitis from these causes is not contagious.

There are many ways to prevent viruses from spreading between people and communities. People can consider the following tips to avoid the transmission of meningitis:

  • washing hands regularly with soap and water
  • avoiding close contact with people who are sick
  • taking vaccinations
  • quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand cigarette smoke
  • covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing
  • contacting a doctor about any potential exposure to meningitis

Some cases of meningitis are mild, but others can become severe — particularly bacterial meningitis. People should always contact a doctor if they experience any signs of meningitis, including:

A doctor will perform diagnostic tests to check what is causing the symptoms. These tests will vary depending on the type of meningitis. For example, a doctor might check for viral meningitis by:

  • taking fluids from around the spinal cord
  • swabbing the nose and throat
  • using a blood test

Several types of meningitis are contagious, such as viral or bacterial meningitis. Some types of meningitis do not spread between people, such as fungal meningitis.

People can take some simple steps to reduce the risk of transmission, including regular handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, and avoiding contact with those who are sick. Individuals can also help to prevent bacterial meningitis by having a vaccine.

Meningitis symptoms generally develop within a week of exposure. In mild cases, an individual may recover at home. However, meningitis can become severe quickly, so an evaluation from a doctor is always necessary.