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What causes meningitis?

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

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

The infection that cause meningitis may spread more easily in places that are overcrowded or smoky.

Viral meningitis usually causes a mild 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 faecal matter.

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. Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency. It can kill within hours, so early diagnosis and treatment is vital.

Immunisation is important

Mumps, measles, chicken pox 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.

Vaccines are also available against some of the bacteria that cause meningitis, such as some types of Meningococcus and some types of Pneumococcus. These are recommended for people at higher than average risk of developing the infections.

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

Last reviewed: November 2016

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