Health Topics

Bacterial Encephalitis & Meningitis

Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain. Meningitis is an illness that causes swelling in the tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord. Both can be caused by an infection with bacteria or viruses. 

Bacterial encephalitis and meningitis are serious infections that can lead to brain damage or death.  They are caused by one or more types of bacteria, such as meningococcus.  Encephalitis or meningitis caused by meningococcus is called meningococcal disease.

Bacterial encephalitis and meningitis are sometimes confused with the less serious viral encephalitis and meningitis.  Viral encephalitis and meningitis rarely causes death in people who are otherwise healthy.  

The bacteria that cause encephalitis and meningitis are contagious.  The way the infection is transmitted and how long it is contagious varies, depending on the type of bacteria.  The infection may be spread from person to person:

  • Through direct contact with respiratory secretions such as saliva, sputum or nasal mucus from the person with the infection (most common)
  • By being in contact with an infected person who is coughing or sneezing
  • By touching your face or mouth after you touch an object that an infected person touched
  • By shaking an infected person's hand

Symptoms can develop very quickly over a few hours or over one or two days.  Common symptoms of bacterial encephalitis and meningitis are:

  • Fever
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Avoiding bright lights
  • Confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sleepiness or trouble waking up
  • Rash

For babies, symptoms of bacterial encephalitis and meningitis include:

  • Fever
  • Constant crying
  • Poor appetitie
  • Difficulty waking up

Recovery depends on various factors and on how soon you get treatment.

Talk to your doctor right away or go to the nearest hospital if you think you or your child has bacterial encephalitis or meningitis.

Bacterial encephalitis and meningitis are treated with certain types of antibiotics.  The specific treatment depends on the type of bacteria and you or your child's age.  The sooner you or your child get treatment, the better.

Here are some tips for preventing bacterial enephalitis and meningitis:

  • Wash your hands well and often using soap and warm water or a hand rub with 70 - 90 % alcohol.  You should be especially careful to wash hands well after using the bathroom, changing babies' diapers, before eating and before preparing food.
  • Avoid sharing drinks and eating and drinking utensils such as cups, straws or water bottles.
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your sleeve; throw away the tissue right after use and wash your hands.
  • Keep your vaccinations up to date.  Talk to your doctor about what is recommended for you and your family.  There is a vaccine for certain types of meningococcus, including A, C, Y, W-135 and B strains.  Read about Meningococcal A, C, Y, W-135 vaccine.  Talk to your doctor about the meningitis B vaccine.

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