Is Meningitis Contagious?

Some types of meningitis are contagious

Feeling sick with meningitis

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Meningitis has a wide range of causes. Some types are contagious infections you can catch from another person, and some types are infections that you can get from contamination in the environment.

Vaccination and avoiding exposure to infectious pathogens can substantially reduce your risk of infectious meningitis. Some types of meningitis are not caused by an infection and are not contagious, but there are steps you can take to avoid noninfectious meningitis as well. 

Viral Meningitis 

Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis. It can be caused by viruses including enterovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, herpes simplex virus, varicella-zoster, mumps virus, measles virus, and more. 

The viruses that cause viral meningitis generally have an incubation period of three to seven days. They are highly prevalent in the community and generally very contagious.

The mode of transmission depends on the virus, with measles known to be spread by airborne transmission. Some others may be spread by respiratory droplets or contact.

Each of the viruses that can cause meningitis may also produce a collection of other symptoms—including respiratory infections, fever, and flu-like symptoms—and they each rarely cause meningitis. For example, varicella-zoster, which causes chickenpox, results in a fever, fatigue, and small pus-filled bumps on the skin.

And even though they are contagious, if you catch any of these viruses from someone, you can develop very different symptoms than the person from whom you caught it. 

You can develop meningitis if you catch any of the meningitis-producing viruses from someone who has symptoms that don’t include meningitis. You can also develop effects that don’t include meningitis if you catch the infection from someone who has meningitis.

Zika virus and Ebola virus are examples of rare viruses that can cause meningitis or meningoencephalitis (infection of the brain). They are not usually highly prevalent in the community, except during outbreaks.

Ebola virus is highly contagious through direct contact, and the effects can be fatal. It is important to avoid contact with anyone who has this infection. Medical professionals who take care of patients who have an active Ebola virus infection wear protective gear to minimize exposure because the infection is so dangerous.

Zika virus can cause severe effects, including nerve disease and meningitis. If a person gets the virus while pregnant, it can cause severe brain damage in the offspring. Zika is spread primarily by mosquito bite, but may be transmitted through body fluids.

Prevention 

The spread of many of the organisms that cause viral meningitis, including mumps, measles, and varicella-zoster, can be prevented with vaccinations.

Nevertheless, if you know that someone has an infection, you should avoid contact if possible. And if you can't avoid contact—because you are taking care of a family member who has an infection, for example—wash your hands after contact to reduce your risk of infection.

Viral meningitis can affect anyone, but it is associated with a weak immune system. If you have an immune deficiency due to medication or disease, it’s important that you avoid situations where you could be exposed to contagious infections. Your vaccine-triggered immunity may weaken if you have an immune deficiency.

Bacterial Meningitis 

Several types of bacteria can cause meningitis, including Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, Haemophilus influenzae, Listeria monocytogenes, group B Streptococcus, and tuberculosis (TB).

Bacterial meningitis is especially dangerous and can progress to infectious encephalitis, an infection that can lead to lasting neurological problems and potentially may be fatal.

Neisseria meningitidis causes meningococcal meningitis. It is spread by respiratory droplets and is associated with meningitis outbreaks that result from the contagious spread of the infection from one person to another. The average incubation period after exposure is four days but can range between two and 10 days.

The other types of bacterial meningitis are also contagious, but they do not necessarily cause meningitis in everyone who is infected. Each of these infections can cause one set of symptoms for one person, and a different set of symptoms for someone else.

You can have meningitis even if the person you caught it from had another manifestation of the infection, and you might experience other manifestations of the infection even if the person you caught it from had meningitis. 

TB can be spread by airborne transmission. Listeria is transmitted through contaminated food. It is especially harmful to people who are pregnant and to the fetus.

Bacterial meningitis must be treated with antibiotics, and often requires treatment with other medications such as anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) and interventions such as intravenous fluids. 

Prevention 

Many types of bacterial meningitis can be prevented with immunizations, including Haemophilus influenzae and Neisseria meningitidis.

The BCG vaccine is recommended to protect against TB for those who are at risk, usually due to geographic location (such as Central and South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East). In the U.S., it is recommended only for children who live with a family member who has TB or select healthcare workers who work with TB patients.

Avoid contact with people who have contagious infections, especially if you know the infection is bacterial. Consider wearing a mask or wiping down surfaces if you must be in enclosed spaces and potentially exposed to other people's infections—this is particularly important if you do not have a healthy immune system.

People who are close contacts or family members of people with bacterial meningitis caused by meningococcus or H. influenzae may be given antibiotics to prevent infection.

You can reduce the risk of Listeria by avoiding meat, fish, seafood, or eggs that are not fully cooked, unpasteurized milk and soft cheeses made from it, and unwashed produce.

Fungal Meningitis

Meningitis caused by a fungal infection is not common and is associated with immunosuppression. The organisms that cause fungal meningitis include Candida, Cryptococcus, Histoplasma, Coccidioides, and Aspergillus.

These organisms are present in the environment, and some are also normally present in or on the body; they typically do not cause an infection in people who are otherwise healthy. 

Fungal meningitis is not considered contagious.

If you have a loved one who has fungal meningitis, for example, you should not be concerned about catching it from them if you have a healthy immune system.

However, you would need to take extra precautions when visiting them in the hospital because you could be carrying a contagious virus that isn’t harming you—but could potentially harm them. Someone who has fungal meningitis might have a severe immune problem that makes them highly susceptible to infections. 

Prevention

In general, the prevention of fungal meningitis is considered important for people who are immune-suppressed due to disease (such as HIV) or who are taking powerful medications that increase the risk of infection (such as chemotherapy).

If you have an immune problem, you would need to have your immune condition regularly monitored to reduce your risk of infection.

Parasitic Meningitis 

Parasites can cause infectious meningitis. These organisms invade the body in a variety of ways, such as contaminated food, water, or soil. You cannot catch parasitic meningitis from someone who has parasitic meningitis.

Prevention

You would avoid getting parasitic meningitis with the same methods you would use to avoid parasites in general. This includes avoiding unsanitary or undercooked food, especially if the type of food is associated with parasitic infection.

It is also important to be aware of the infection risks in places where you travel and to take recommended precautions—this might include wearing shoes when walking near soil or near bodies of water, and not swimming in potentially contaminated water.

Other Types of Meningitis 

Most other types of meningitis are not infectious and are not contagious. Inflammatory meningitis, radiation-induced meningitis, and medication-associated meningitis may occur if you have risk factors, but they are not spread from one person to another. 

Prevention 

If you are at risk of noninfectious types of meningitis, you and your healthcare provider will need to talk about prevention. Avoiding meningitis will differ depending on your risk.

For example, if you have lupus, which is one of the causes of noninfectious meningitis, you would need to take medication to control your condition. Keeping your condition under control would help prevent serious effects of the condition, such as meningitis. 

A Word From Verywell

Meningitis usually resolves without long-term effects. But sometimes a meningitis infection can have serious long-term effects, such as prolonged headaches, fatigue, and cognitive problems.

It’s important to take precautions to avoid meningitis, and you can reduce your risk of being infected with the contagious types of meningitis by staying up to date on your recommended vaccinations and avoiding exposure to the pathogens that can cause meningitis.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  7. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Listeria and pregnancy. Updated 2018.

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  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. BCG vaccine. Updated May 4, 2016.

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  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parasitic meningitis. August 6, 2019.

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