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What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation (swelling) of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

What causes meningitis?

There are many different causes of meningitis. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites or other medical conditions may cause meningitis.

Bacterial Meningitis

  • Can be life-threatening or deadly.
  • Fast-moving
  • Requires immediate antibiotic treatment.
  • Antibiotics may be recommended for close contacts (to reduce the spread of disease)
  • Long-term effects of bacterial meningitis can include hearing loss, brain damage, organ damage or learning disabilities.
  • Many forms (not all) of bacterial meningitis can be prevented with vaccinations.
  • May develop after an upper respiratory sickness and may be caused by:
  • Streptococcus pneumonia
  • Hemophilus influenza
  • Listeria monocytogenei
  • Streptococcus agalactiae
  • Escherichia coli
  • Staphlococcus aureus.

Some Types of Bacterial Meningitis:

Viral Meningitis

  • Similar symptoms to bacterial.
  • Not as deadly or associated with the long term complications ( as with bacterial)
  • No specific treatment
  • Most patients fully recover from viral meningitis over time.
  • Viral meningitis is caused by one of many viruses, such as:

Other causes of Meningitis

  • Fungi
  • Parasites
  • Head injury
  • Cancer
  • Some medications

What are the Symptoms?

Early diagnosis is very important. If you or anyone in your family has the following symptoms they should seek immediate medical attention. Symptoms are similar for viral and bacterial meningitis and can develop over several hours or may take one to two days.

  • Severe headache
  • High fever
  • Vomiting
  • Stiff neck or pain when moving the head
  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • A rash of tiny red-purple spots that doesn’t go away when pressed against a clear drinking glass.

In babies, the symptoms are more difficult to identify. They may include:

  • Fever
  • Fussiness or constant crying
  • Refusing to eat
  • Difficulty wakening.

How is meningitis diagnosed?

If meningitis is suspected, a doctor will collect fluid from the spine to send to the laboratory for testing. This procedure is called a lumbar puncture or a spinal tap. It’s important in order to determine what is causing the meningitis, it determines the treatment, predicts the severity and determines whether they illness might spread from person to person.

Bacterial meningitis must be treated immediately with antibiotics to reduce the risk of serious complications and/or death. Meningococcal meningitis particularly requires immediate antibiotics as well as measures to reduce the spread to others (the patient is kept away from others or “isolated” and close contacts are assessed and may require antibiotics.

Viral meningitis is less severe than bacterial meningitis. Most patients recover from viral meningitis on their own, without treatment. Doctors may recommend bed rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and ibuprofen or acetaminophen for fever and headache.

How does meningitis spread?

Meningitis can be spread by “healthy carriers” as well as people who are sick. “Healthy carriers” carry the germ in their nose or throat without ever getting sick themselves. It can also be spread through saliva with:

  • Kissing
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Sharing:
  • Eating utensils (forks, spoons and knives)
  • Toothbrushes
  • Cigarettes
  • Lipstick
  • Food
  • Drinks
  • Musical instruments and mouth guards

Smoking and being in overcrowded areas increases the risk of spreading the sickness.

What are the possible complications?

Meningitis is a very serious sickness. While most people with meningitis recover, it can cause serious complications such as brain damage, hearing loss and sometimes death.

How can I prevent getting meningitis?

  • Get vaccinated! Immunization is available to prevent some types of meningitis (refer to Ontario’s Publicly Funded Immunization Schedule)
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water (after using the toilet, changing diapers, coughing, blowing your nose, before eating)
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact such as kissing, hugging, or sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick. Avoid sharing items you or someone else has had in their mouth.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve, not your hands.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces (toys, doorknobs, etc.) especially if someone is sick in the home.
  • Stay home when you are sick.

Health Care Providers:

Confirmed and suspected meningitis cases are Reportable Infections to the Health Unit. Laboratories are required to fax lab case information to the Health Unit at fax # 226-783-2132. To report meningitis by phone, call 519-258-2146 ext. 1447 during business hours and 519-973-4510 after hours and weekends.

Depending on the cause of the meningitis, persons who live in the same household, attend the same day care setting or have had sexual and or other intimate contact (sharing eating utensils, drinks with the case) should watch for signs and symptoms of meningitis and may require prophylaxis (depending on the cause of the meningitis). Immunization of contacts may also be warranted depending on the cause of the meningitis.

Exclude children from group settings as soon as meningitis is suspected. Readmit to the group settings when the child is cleared to return by a health care provider and when well enough to participate in all group activities.

If you have any questions or concerns please call 519-258-2146 ext. 1420.

For further information about human diagnostic testing, contact Public Health Ontario Laboratories Customer Service (Consulting with Health Care Providers on laboratory testing) or call toll Free: 1-877-604-4567 or see case definition for approved/validated diagnostic tests.

Ontario’s Public Health Infectious Disease Protocol / Management of Meningitis (bacterial, viral, other)

Meningitis Provincial Case Definition