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Meningitis: 12 Frequently Asked Questions

Meningitis can be a very serious disease. If you or someone you love is at increased risk for meningitis, you may have lots of questions. Here are answers to some of the most common questions about meningitis.
 

1. What is meningitis?
Meningitis occurs when the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, called the meninges, become inflamed. It is usually caused by an infection. This disease can be fatal or cause serious lasting side effects.
 

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2. What are the causes of meningitis?
The two main causes of meningitis are viruses and bacteria. Common bacteria or viruses may cause infection in a part of the body -- the skin, gastrointestinal tract, or respiratory tract, for instance. They then may spread through the bloodstream to the nervous system. Bacteria can also enter the nervous system directly after severe head trauma or head surgery, or following an infection in the head.

Fungi, protozoa, and other parasites are less common causes of meningitis. In very rare cases, cancer, other diseases, or certain medications may also lead to inflammation of the meninges.
 

3. What is bacterial meningitis?
Bacterial meningitis is serious, occurring more often in winter months. A common cause affecting teens is the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, which causes meningococcal disease. It can be fatal if you don't receive treatment right away. The bacteria that cause it live in the noses and throats of up to a quarter of the population. It is not known why these bacteria sometimes travel to the nervous system and cause meningitis. Another leading cause of bacterial meningitis is Streptococcus pneumoniae.
 

4. What is viral meningitis?
Viral meningitis is more common and usually less serious. It tends to occur more often in the summer and fall. Because of its flu-like symptoms, many people mistake it for the flu. Viruses that cause "stomach flu" are a cause of viral meningitis, but most people who have these infections don't develop meningitis. Others viruses that lead to meningitis are those that cause chickenpox, mononucleosis (mono), and herpes. Symptoms can be similar to those of bacterial meningitis.
 

5. Who is at risk for meningitis?
A person of any age may develop bacterial meningitis. But it is more common in infants and young children and in people older than 60. Because of close contact with peers, teens and college students are at greater risk, too. Although more common in children, viral meningitis occurs in people of all ages. Having a weakened immune system or traveling to certain foreign countries also increases your risk for meningitis.
 

6. Is meningitis contagious?
Close contact - not casual contact at work or school - can spread the bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis. This includes kissing, coughing, or sneezing. Sharing eating utensils, glasses, food, or towels can also spread these bacteria and viruses.

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