Originally Published: November 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 29, 2013
I would like to know how meningitis is transmitted. Can it be cured, treated, and/or easily prevented?
Meningitis, an infection and inflammation of the tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord (meninges), can be caused by a number of culprits, including viruses and bacteria. Symptoms include a high fever, headache, a stiff neck, vomiting or nausea, confusion, seizures, and sensitivity to light.
While viral meningitis is the most common form, bacterial meningitis is usually the more serious cause for concern. Viral meningitis is less severe and typically goes away without treatment; bacterial meningitis is potentially fatal, but can be successfully treated.
Some forms of bacterial meningitis may be spread by contact with saliva, feces, and respiratory and throat secretions. This means that kissing, sharing spoons and forks, or other objects that are put in the mouth, can spread bacterial meningitis. Because of this, people who spend a lot of time together in close quarters, e.g., college students, especially first years, living in residence halls, are at a higher risk of infection. However, although bacterial meningitis is contagious, it is not as contagious as the common cold or flu and cannot be spread through casual contact with an infected person. In addition, meningitis is quite rare, whether bacterial or viral.
In order to identify the bacteria, a clinician may perform a spinal tap, where s/he will take a sample of a patient's cerebrospinal fluid, which is then analyzed. Treatment of bacterial meningitis may include antibiotics, intravenous fluids, and/or hospitalization. Identifying and treating the infection early is important for a full recovery. (People who have come in close contact with other people with bacterial meningitis may be given preventative antibiotics to steer clear of infection.) Unfortunately, not all treatment is successful and the infection can result in hearing loss and/or death.
Hopefully, prevention can keep you healthy and meningitis-free. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including:
- Vaccination — consult a healthcare provider to see if this is right for you (see the Related Q&As below for more information).
- Careful and vigorous hand washing before eating and after using the bathroom.
- Not sharing objects that make contact with the mouth or lips (e.g., eating utensils, cups, cigarettes, lipstick or chapstick, toothbrushes).
- Maintaining a healthy, immune-boosting lifestyle with plenty of rest, regular exercise, and a healthy eating plan.
If you believe you have meningitis, have been exposed to someone with meningitis, or if you have further questions, you can consult your health care provider. If you are a student at Columbia on the Morningside campus, you can call make an appointment by logging into Open Communicator or by calling 212-854-2284. If you are on the CUMC campus, contact the Student Health Service for an appointment by calling 212-305-3400.
Wishing you health,