Illustration of a abstract leaf pattern
  1. Viral meningitis - Viral meningitis is fairly common. It usually does not cause serious illness. In severe cases, it can cause prolonged fever and seizures.

  2. Bacterial meningitis - Bacterial meningitis is not as common, but it is very serious. It needs to be treated right away to prevent brain damage and death.

Who is at risk of meningitis?

People living in close quarters are at higher risk for infection, including teens, college, and boarding-school students. Also at risk are older adults and people who have long-term health problems, such as a weakened immune system.


Viral meningitis

Viral meningitis is the most common and the least dangerous. It's caused by viruses, most often enteroviruses that live in the intestines. These viruses can be spread through food, water, or contaminated objects. Meningitis caused by enteroviruses occurs most often in babies and young children.

Viruses that can cause viral meningitis are spread through contact with bowel movements, saliva or discharge from the nose of an infected person. Most people who are in contact with someone with viral meningitis will not catch meningitis themselves.

Bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is caused by bacteria. It is a very serious illness. These germs are usually passed from one person to another through infected saliva or mucus. Most people who get bacterial meningitis get it from one of two types of bacteria:

Bacterial meningitis is spread by direct contact with fluid from the nose or throat of an infected person. This can happen when people kiss or share food, drinks, baby bottles, soothers, sippy cups, cigarettes, lipstick, water bottles, mouth guards used for sports, mouthpieces of musical instruments or anything else they put in their mouths.

People who are in direct contact with the saliva of a person infected with some types of bacterial meningitis may be at increased risk.

If there is a case of bacterial meningitis in a child care centre or school, the Medical Health Officer will tell you who is at risk, who should receive antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick, and who should receive meningitis vaccine. Public health will provide the antibiotics or vaccine.


Viral meningitis

When one person gets the disease it does not usually spread to others. Outbreaks of the disease are rare. It is not necessary to keep a person with viral meningitis away from others. Children may feel very sick and may be hospitalized. Children usually get better in about one or two weeks. There are usually not any long-term health problems after viral meningitis

Some signs of viral meningitis are:

  • fever
  • headache
  • a stiff and painful neck, especially when you try to touch your chin to your chest
  • upset stomach, vomiting, poor appetite
  • trouble staying awake 
  • rash

Bacterial meningitis

Most people with the disease will feel very ill and have a fever. Young children may be sleepy, fussy or cry more than usual. Some people may later develop a bad headache, stiff neck or a rash and may have an upset stomach and vomiting.

To find out if someone has bacterial or viral meningitis, a doctor uses a needle to take some fluid from around the spinal cord. The fluid is tested to see if the infection is caused by bacteria or by a virus.


More on this topic

Diseases to report

Meningitis updates