Bacterial vs. Viral Meningitis: What Parents Need to Know

Posted on August 29, 2019

Category: Causes and Prevention Signs and Symptoms

Summer is ending and the back to school season is here. Whether your child is starting kindergarten or college, it’s important to be prepared before kicking off the school year. Pencils and notebooks aren’t the only things you be should thinking about before summer ends. The health and safety of yourself or a loved one should be the top priority for the upcoming year. Schools can be a harbor of germs and disease. That is why it’s important to learn and combat the dangers of meningitis, a disease that can affect anyone at any time.

Take the time to learn the signs of meningitis- these precautions could be lifesaving.


What is Meningitis?

The name meningitis comes from the word meninges, which is the protective membrane around the spinal cord and brain. When infected with meningitis, the meninges swells and causes damage to these vital areas. This can cause medical shock, coma, or even death. Because the brain and spinal cord are such important parts of the body, quick treatment could be the difference between life and death.

How Can You Get Meningitis?

Meningitis is a prevalent disease that comes in three forms: bacterial, viral, and fungal. Bacterial and viral forms are the most common, with bacterial meningitis being the most contagious and most deadly form of meningitis. These bacteria are most commonly spread through people’s saliva. Kissing, coughing, or even eating contaminated food are easy ways to contract and spread meningitis.

Viral meningitis is most commonly spread through the bloodstream from an infection in another part of the body. It can also be contracted by contact with contaminated stool or by being bit by an infected mosquito. Viral forms of meningitis usually aren’t as dangerous as bacterial forms.

Sharing the awareness about meningitis can potentially be lifesaving. Bacterial meningitis will be the form to look out for this schoolyear.


Who is at Risk?

Like Dr. Tosh said in the video above, people in enclosed areas are the most susceptible to meningitis. This occurs especially in schools. With the advances of child vaccines, meningitis concerns are affecting adults more than ever.

Teenagers and young adults are at an increased risk of meningitis caused by bacteria. These bacteria can live secretly in the throats and noses of all people, but teenagers and young adults are more likely to host these bacteria. Meningitis exposure is higher for this age group because college students tend to live in residence halls.

College campuses see outbreaks because of the social interactions among students in school. It is very easy for infections to spread through residence halls because so many people are living in enclosed quarters. However close you are to your roommate, being too close can be dangerous. Sharing food, drinking cups, or lipstick isn’t as harmless as it sounds. This can spread the disease fast and prolong its presence.

Young students are also at a risk of meningitis. It can easily spread by touching infected objects like doorknobs, desks, or toys. Being in close contact with an infected person can also spread meningitis.


Know the Signs

Many people can carry this particular germ in their nose and throat without any signs of illness, while others may develop serious symptoms. Bacterial meningitis rates have decreased in the past 20 years, but the disease can still result in death, if contracted.

Symptoms of meningitis usually appear five days after contracting the disease. Occasionally, symptoms will appear as early as two or as late as ten days after contraction. You may suddenly develop the following symptoms

  • Fever
  • Severe headache
  • Vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Rash
  • Light sensitivity

It’s easy to mistake early meningitis signs for the common flu. Both have similar symptoms such as: fever, vomiting and nausea. It is recommended that anytime a sudden high fever is accompanied by severe headaches you should see a doctor right away.



When meningitis is suspected, there are multiple tests a doctor can conduct to confirm a diagnosis. These tests can also determine whether you’ve contracted viral or bacterial forms.

  • Blood Cultures: Blood tests can alert your doctor to an infection. Blood samples are studied to see if microorganisms, like bacteria, grow.
  • Imaging: CT or MRI head scans can show swelling or inflammation associated with meningitis. CT scans of the chest or sinuses can also show infections in other associated areas.
  • Spinal Tap: To get a definitive diagnosis of meningitis, you’ll need a spinal tap or lumbar puncture. This procedure collects cerebrospinal fluid that can show glucose and protein levels, as well as a white blood cell count.


Prevention & Treatment: Vaccines—A Game-Changer

Prevention is the first step to take when dealing with disease. Thanks to vaccines, meningitis is at a historic low in the United States. Since 2005 when the CDC recommended teens and preteens get the MenACWY vaccine, teen meningitis rates have decreased by over 90%. It is recommended that all teens and preteens are vaccinated for meningitis. Most middle schools and colleges even require students to get the meningococcal vaccination.

Taking easy precautions like washing hands frequently and not sharing eating and drinking utensils is a helpful way to avoid contracting or spreading meningitis.

If you have been diagnosed with meningitis, doctors will recommend specific treatment depending on the form you’ve contracted. Bacterial meningitis must be treated immediately with antibiotics. This helps ensure recovery and reduce the risk of brain swelling and seizures. On the other hand, viral meningitis can’t be cured by antibiotics, but usually improves on its own after several weeks. Over the counter pain medications and bed rest are recommended for mild cases of viral meningitis.


Now You Know

Use this gained knowledge to recognize the dangers of meningitis. Now that you understand the signs and symptoms of meningitis, spread awareness to students young or old. If you or someone you know is experiencing the signs of meningitis, seek urgent care immediately.