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What causes meningitis?

3-minute read

Meningitis is usually caused by an infection, most commonly viruses or bacteria. Occasionally it’s caused by parasites or fungi.

The infection can be spread from person to person by close contact such as coughing, sneezing or kissing. Occasionally it can be spread by touching contaminated surfaces or personal items.

Viral meningitis usually causes a milder form of meningitis and it most commonly affects children. Viral meningitis is usually caused by enteroviruses, which live in fluids in the mouth and nose, and in faeces (poo).

Bacterial meningitis is usually more severe. It’s caused mainly by meningococcus or pneumococcus bacteria. These bacteria live in the nose and throat and are usually harmless. But they can enter the blood stream and spread to the membrane surrounding the brain, causing meningitis. Bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency. It can kill within hours, so early diagnosis and treatment is vital.

Immunisation is important

Mumps, measles, chickenpox and Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) were once major causes of meningitis, but these diseases are now rare due to immunisation.

Several of the bacteria that cause meningitis can be largely prevented by the routine childhood immunisations so staying up to date with childhood vaccinations is the best way to prevent meningitis.

Extra optional vaccines are also available against some of strains of meningococcus bacteria, one of the more common types of bacterial meningitis.

Immunisation against meningococcal disease is recommended for:

  • babies under 2
  • healthy adolescents aged 15-19 years
  • adolescents and young adults who live close to each other (like in military barracks)
  • adolescents and young adults who are current smokers
  • people who are travelling overseas
  • people who have medical conditions that increase their risk
  • laboratory workers who work with the bacterium that causes meningococcal disease
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 2 months to 19 years

Meningitis vaccine

Vaccination is your best protection against meningitis. This table explains how the vaccine is given, who should get it, and whether it is on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Some diseases can be prevented with different vaccines, so talk to your doctor about which one is appropriate for you.

What age is it recommended? Children can receive different meningococcal vaccines from 6 weeks. It is provided to children at 12 months and teenagers aged 14 to 16 (or up to 19 if they missed their vaccination at school).
How many doses are required? 1, 2 or 3 doses, depending on the vaccine.
How is it administered? Injection
Is it free?

Free for babies and adolescents.

For everyone else, there is a cost for this vaccine.

Find out more on the Department of Health website and the National Immunisation Program Schedule, and ask your doctor if you are eligible for additional free vaccines based on your situation or location.

Common side effects The vaccines are very safe. Possible side effects include pain, redness and swelling where the needle went in, fever, feeling unsettled or tired, decreased appetite and headache.

More information on the Australian Immunisation Schedule is available from the Immunise Australia Program, or you can speak to your doctor.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2019

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