Updated: Jul 21, 2020
23 January 2018
Written by Becky Parry
How much do you know about meningitis? Knowing how meningitis is spread, how it’s prevented and its symptoms can save lives, but there are a number of dangerous myths out there. Find out the truth behind some of the biggest meningitis myths we’ve encountered!
Myth: There is just one type of meningitis.
Fact: Meningitis can be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites.
Viral meningitis can be caused by many different types of virus. Most people are exposed to many of these viruses over the course of their lifetime and do not go on to develop meningitis.
Bacterial meningitis can be caused by a variety of bacteria. The main types are meningococcal, pneumococcal, group B streptococcal, E.coli, Hib and TB. There are 15 strains of meningococcal bacteria that can cause meningococcal meningitis, most commonly groups A, B, C, W, X and Y, and there are over 90 strains of pneumococcal bacteria that can cause pneumococcal meningitis.
Fungal meningitis is not common, nor contagious and spreads by inhaling fungal spores from the environment.
Parasitic meningitis is uncommon in humans and is caused by ingesting the infectious form of a parasite.
Myth: Meningitis is easy to diagnose.
Fact: Meningitis and septicaemia can be hard to recognise, especially in their early stages. Symptoms can be easily mistaken for the flu and include having a severe headache, neck pain and a fever. Babies present slightly differently to adults and may exhibit symptoms such as a high pitched cry , not feeding and a bulging fontanelle (soft spot on the top of the infant's head). If you think you or a loved one has meningitis or septicaemia, trust your instincts and seek medical advice immediately.
Myth: Once you’ve had a meningitis vaccine, you’re completely protected against meningitis.
Fact: As there are several types and strains of meningitis, there are several meningitis vaccines available. Numerous vaccines help to protect against the most common strains of bacterial meningitis, such as PCV13, MenACWY, MenB and Hib, though not all strains are vaccine-preventable. Some types of viral meningitis can be prevented by vaccination; for example, the MMR vaccine protects against meningitis due to mumps and measles. There are no vaccines to protect against fungal and parasitic meningitis.
Myth: A rash is always present with meningitis. If you’re not sure about your symptoms, wait and see if one develops.
Fact: A rash is not always present with meningitis and often has a later onset than other symptoms. Symptoms can develop quickly and meningitis can kill in less than 24 hours. If you suspect the signs of meningitis, seek urgent medical attention.
Myth: Only babies and children get meningitis.Fact: Anyone, of any age, can be affected by meningitis. Infants, young children, adolescents, older people and the immuno-compromised are at greater risk.
Myth: Vaccines that protect against some of the strains of bacterial meningitis can cause meningitis.
Fact: Meningitis-preventing vaccines have proven to be extremely safe. Due to their composition and the way they are made, there is no possibility of contracting meningitis or any other infection from these vaccines.
Myth: Meningitis is incurable.
Fact: Treatment of meningitis varies from country to country, and depends on factors such as access to medical care, availability of antibiotics and local antibiotic resistance patterns. Generally speaking, bacterial meningitis requires injectable antibiotics and fluid replacement, and viral meningitis is treated with painkillers and rest. Most people who contract meningitis survive, although up to 20% of people with bacterial meningitis will die within 48 hours of first displaying symptoms. While many meningitis survivors make a full recovery, some experience a range of disabling after-effects, including learning difficulties, hearing loss and chronic headaches.
Myth: Meningitis is not contagious.
Fact: Although the bacteria that can cause meningitis cannot live for long outside the human body, they can be spread by secretions and droplets from the nose or mouth of carriers. Carriers have the bacteria in their nose and throat but remain well. If someone is diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis, those living together in the same household and very close friends are usually given antibiotics and are sometimes vaccinated as a preventive measure. The viruses that can cause meningitis can also spread from one person to another, but fungal and parasitic meningitis are not contagious.
Becky works at CoMO's Head Office in the UK and provides communications, event and administrative support. She studied Philosophy at the University of Sussex and has a Masters in Human Rights. Becky has a background in international development and has worked for a variety of charitable organisations throughout her career.