Health Break | Published December 9, 2013 | Written by Richard Hale, DO, internal medicine, Mount Nittany Physician Group

Prepare yourself: Know meningitis in all its varieties

With the recent outbreak of meningitis at universities in New Jersey, it’s important to take a minute to learn about the different types of meningitis, as well as the signs, symptoms, and precautions regarding this communicable disease.

Meningitis is a disease characterized by inflammation of the membranes—called meninges—surrounding the brain and spinal cord. This swelling typically occurs because of an infection of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

There are five different types of meningitis, and each has different traits, characteristics, treatments, and symptoms:

  • Viral meningitis: This is the most common type of meningitis in the U.S. Viral meningitis is caused by viruses such as the herpes simplex virus. It is contagious from person-to-person through fecal contamination such as when changing a diaper or not properly washing hands after using the restroom. Rarely fatal in healthy individuals, viral meningitis typically clears up on its own, but it’s important to see a healthcare provider right away to confirm the virus. 
  • Bacterial meningitis: This severe type of meningitis is caused by bacteria. Because it can be life threatening, contagious and rapidly progressive, immediate medical attention is essential. Spreading through respiratory secretions such as kissing, bacterial meningitis is typically treated with antibiotics, which helps prevent spreading the infection to others. 
  • Parasitic meningitis: This type of meningitis is very rare, and is caused by parasites in food, soil, and water. It is more common in under-developed countries, although there have been cases of parasitic meningitis in the U.S. from swimming in warm, freshwater lakes and rivers.
  • Fungal meningitis: This type of meningitis is also rare, and is caused by fungi. Not contagious, fungal meningitis is usually acquired by inhaling fungal spores in the environment. Those with HIV, cancer, or diabetes can be at higher risk due to a weakened immune system. Treatment includes long courses of high-dose antifungal medications.
  • Non-infectious meningitis: Also not contagious, non-infectious meningitis can be caused by complications from another illness, certain drugs, head injuries or brain surgery. Treatment varies depending on the cause of the non-infectious meningitis.

While each type of meningitis can have different symptoms, the key signs associated with most cases of meningitis include headache, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, mental status change and a stiff neck.

In terms of prevention, vaccines are available to help prevent most types of bacterial meningitis. To help prevent viral and bacterial meningitis, proper hand washing is also very important.

For teens entering college and living in a dormitory setting, or for kids going to overnight camp, a bacterial meningitis vaccination should be recommended.

It’s also important for prevention that you maintain a healthy immune system by exercising regularly; eating a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains; getting enough sleep; and avoiding cigarettes, illicit drugs and alcohol.

If you believe you may have meningitis or if you have been in close contact with someone who has meningitis, it’s best to speak with your family physician right away.

Richard T. Hale, DO, internal medicine, Mount Nittany Physician Group