Meningitis is a serious, potentially life threatening illness which can be caused by either bacterial or viral infection; in rare cases, it can be caused a fungal infection. Because bacterial meningitis is far more serious than the viral form, it’s essential to discern the cause so that appropriate treatment can be administered.
Viral meningitis is more commonly contracted than bacterial meningitis, and it tends to be less serious. In fact, it usually heals on its own – however, if you show symptoms of meningitis, you shouldn’t wait to see if they clear up on their own before seeking medical attention. Enteroviruses, which generally only cause mild stomach problems, are easily spread through coughing, sneezing, and poor hand-washing hygiene. Other viruses like herpes, West Nile, mumps, measles, and AIDS can also lead to an infection. Vaccinations against common viruses such as mumps and measles have helped reduce the chances of a viral meningitis occurrence.
Bacterial meningitis occurs when a bacterial infection infiltrates the bloodstream and travel to the brain and spinal cord. One bacteria that commonly causes meningitis in all age groups, from infant to adult, typically causes pneumonia or ear and sinus infections, but vaccines can help reduce this risk. Teenagers and young adults are most often infected with a bacteria which normally results in a respiratory infection; this is because meningococcal meningitis, as it’s known, is easily spread in crowded, close quarters like dorms and military barracks. Again, there is a vaccine that can help prevent this. Listeria is a bacteria which is often present in soft cheeses and processed meats such as hot dogs and lunch meat. In healthy people, listeria exposure isn’t much of a concern, but in those with a compromised immune system (the elderly, pregnant women, babies, and people with certain illnesses), the risk of it developing into meningitis is greater.
Instances of fungal meningitis are rare, although they are possible, and cause chronic meningitis, which develops slowly over a week or two, rather than suddenly. They severity of the symptoms can be easily confused with bacterial meningitis.