What are the different types of meningitis?

Viral meningitis – viral meningitis occurs when a viral infection, such as influenza or herpes, causes an inflammation of the meninges - the tissue that covers and protects the spine and brain. Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis in the UK - it’s really important all the right tests are done to make sure it’s viral, but once this is confirmed, most people would be able to recover at home with the help of painkillers, anti-sickness medication and lots of rest

Bacterial meningitis – bacterial meningitis is caused by a number of different types of bacteria, which can infect tissues in the spine and brain and cause inflammation. Bacterial meningitis is the second most common form of meningitis in the UK, and bacteria that causes bacterial meningitis is estimated to be carried by 10% of the population (although they don’t cause symptoms in most people who carry them). Bacterial meningitis is the most serious form of meningitis. It can be fatal if left untreated, and can lead to  life-altering after-effects in survivors such as brain damage or limb amputation.

Fungal meningitis – fungal meningitis is a rare type of meningitis that is most commonly caused by the Cryptococcus fungus, which is found in soil and dirt. Most incidences of fungal meningitis occur in Africa, where it is one of the most common causes of adult meningitis. When inhaled, these fungal spores can infect the blood and spread to the tissue around the spinal cord and cause inflammation. Fungal meningitis typically only affects those who have a weakened immune system, such as those with HIV or elderly people.

Parasitic meningitis – parasitic meningitis is another extremely rare type of meningitis, which is most commonly caused by the amoeba Naegleria fowleri. These parasites live in bodies of warm, stagnant, freshwater, such as lakes or ponds. These parasites can also contaminate untreated man-made bodies of water, such as swimming pools that have not been properly maintained. Meningitis-causing parasites can infect people who swim in contaminated waters through the nose, then travel to the brain and destroy the brain tissue, although it’s very rare that contacting contaminated water actually lead to this.

Non-infectious meningitis – while other forms of meningitis are caused by various bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic infections, non-infectious meningitis occurs as a result of certain disorders, or adverse reactions to drugs or chemicals. Non-infectious meningitis is an umbrella term used to refer to these types of meningitis which are not caused by an underlying infection - because of this, it’s not contagious. Causes of non-infectious meningitis include:

  • Head injuries
  • Brain surgery
  • Cancer
  • Lupus
  • Reaction to certain drugs

Are all types of meningitis serious?

All cases of meningitis are taken seriously – as meningitis has the potential to cause death, and can lead to long-term health consequences in survivors, all suspected cases of meningitis are taken seriously and require immediate medical attention. However, not all types of meningitis are fatal and some milder forms may not require ongoing medical help once diagnosed.

Bacterial meningitis is the most serious form of meningitis – left untreated, bacterial meningitis can be fatal in up to 70% of cases and may cause life-altering after effects 20% of survivors. These after-effects include loss of limb(s), brain damage, loss of vision and loss of hearing. The bacteria that causes meningitis may also lead to blood poisoning (septicaemia), which is responsible for the telltale red-rash that does not fade when a glass is pressed against it. When meningitis is suspected, patients are started on a course of antibiotics before the cause is diagnosed, in case it is bacterial meningitis.

Viral meningitis usually has mild symptoms and no after-effects – most cases of viral meningitis do not cause any significant after effects. Some, patients may develop short-term memory loss or other neurological problems, but these cases are rare. Viral meningitis still requires medical attention even though it’s lower risk than other types because it can still sometimes have serious consequences.

Are all types of meningitis contagious?

Meningitis itself is not contagious, but the underlying causes may be – as meningitis can be caused by a variety of infections, and non-infectious causes in some cases, not all types of meningitis are considered to be contagious. Meningitis caused by viral and bacterial infections are considered to be contagious, while all other forms of meningitis are not.

Contagious forms of meningitis:

Viral meningitis – viral meningitis is the most common form of meningitis, as the viruses that can cause viral meningitis may be highly contagious. While it is unlikely that these viruses will result in meningitis, it is the most easily spread. It is estimated that there are 6000 cases of viral meningitis per year in the UK. Common viruses that may cause meningitis, such as influenza, mumps, and measles, can be easily spread between those who are not vaccinated by means such as coughing or sneezing. Herpes and HIV can be spread through unprotected sex, which can go on to cause viral meningitis

Bacterial meningitis – the bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis are estimated to be carried by 10% of the population, though the bacteria is typically harmless unless it infects the bloodstream. While it is unlikely that these bacteria will be transmitted by being near an infected person for a brief period of time, the bacteria can be spread during prolonged close contact, for example sharing a house or flat with somebody who has been infected. Meningitis-causing bacteria can also be spread by exposure to infected saliva and mucus, including kissing, sharing eating utensils, coughing, and sneezing

Non-contagious forms of meningitis:

Fungal meningitis – fungal meningitis is caused by fungal spores that infect the bloodstream, which can be inhaled from contaminated dirt or soil. These spores cannot be transmitted between people, so you cannot catch fungal meningitis from somebody else

Parasitic meningitis – the parasites that cause parasitic meningitis can be caught by swimming in contaminated waters, but cannot be passed between people. In addition, these parasites cannot be caught by sharing a drink with someone who has been infected, or from drinking contaminated water, so parasitic meningitis is not contagious

Non-infectious meningitis – non-infectious meningitis is caused by an underlying condition or external stimulus, which triggers an inflammation of the meninges. Because there is no underlying infection causing the inflammation, non-infectious meningitis is not contagious

Which types of meningitis can be treated?

The treatment you receive will depend on the type of meningitis you have – meningitis can be caused by a number of different triggers, which all require different types and intensities of treatment. If a doctor suspects that you have meningitis, you may be started on antibiotics before the type of meningitis has been diagnosed. This is because bacterial meningitis is the most life-threatening form of meningitis, so immediate treatment is required to prevent bacterial meningitis from developing any further and causing serious health complications. Once the cause of meningitis has been diagnosed, targeted treatment can begin.

Viral meningitis normally doesn’t require any treatment – the symptoms of viral meningitis are typically mild, and will go away on their own without treatment in about a week. In most cases of viral meningitis, a doctor will send you home to recover with some rest, hydration, and painkillers.

Bacterial meningitis is treated immediately with antibiotics – as bacterial meningitis can rapidly develop into a life-threatening condition, treatment will begin immediately with a course of antibiotics directly into a vein. In severe cases this may be combined with corticosteroids to reduce the inflammation and the complications associated with it, such as brain swelling. Fluids, normally a saline solution, would be given intravenously to prevent dehydration from causing further complications and an oxygen mask may be required. Those suffering from bacterial meningitis will need to stay in hospital for at least a few days, and in serious cases treatment may take weeks, during which time the treatment will be closely monitored.

Fungal meningitis requires antifungal medication – treatment of fungal meningitis requires for the underlying fungal infection to be killed with a course of antifungal meningitis - typically given intravenously at hospital. The time that the treatment will take depends on the type of fungus that has caused the infection, and how strong the immune system is, but treatment can sometimes take longer than a month. Antifungal treatment may also cause serious side effects, such as liver and kidney damage.

Parasitic meningitis are treated with a group of drugs called anthelmintics – a group of antiparasitic drugs, called anthelmintics, are used to stun or kill, and therefore get rid of the parasites that are causing meningitis. In cases where the parasitic infection has progressed to a more severe stage, corticosteroids may be administered to reduce any inflammation caused by the parasite.

Non-infectious meningitis treatment depends on the underlying cause – as non-infectious meningitis is an umbrella term used to define a large number of different causes of meningitis, the treatment is dependant on what is causing the inflammation. If meningitis is being triggered by a type of drug or medication, then a healthcare professional may advise that you stop taking it. If meningitis is triggered by a disorder, such as lupus, then the underlying disorder must be treated.

What types can meningitis vaccines protect against?

Some causes of bacterial and viral meningitis can be vaccinated against – a number of the most common causes of meningitis can be prevented by vaccines, a number of which are offered routinely on the NHS or available privately from Superdrug Health Clinics. For further information on how you can protect yourself against meningitis, please visit our "What is Meningitis?" page.

There are no vaccines for rarer types of meningitis – as fungal and parasitic meningitis are uncommon, no vaccinations have been developed to prevent these infections, and can only be treated after infection has occurred. As non-infection meningitis is not caused by an infection, it cannot be vaccinated against.