Meningitis is classically defined as an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, and it can be caused by:
- viruses – also called aseptic meningitis, it can be caused by enteroviruses, measles, mumps, and herpes, etc.
- bacteria – Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, Listeria monocytogenes, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), Group B strep
- a fungus – Cryptococcus, Histoplasma
- parasites – uncommon
- amebas – Naegleria fowleri
Surprisingly, there are even non-infectious causes of meningitis. These might be include side-effects of a medication or that the child’s meningitis is a part of another systemic illness.
What to Do If Your Child Is Exposed to Meningitis
While meningitis can be contagious, it greatly depends on the type of meningitis to which they are exposed as to whether or not your child is at any risk.
So while the general advice is to “tell your doctor if you think you have been exposed to someone with meningitis,” you should try and gather as much information as you can about the exposure.
This information will hopefully include the type of meningitis they were exposed to, specifically if it was bacterial or viral, the exact organism if it has been identified, and how close of an exposure it was – were they simply in the same school or actually sitting next to each other in the same room.
For example, while the CDC states that “people who are close contacts of a person with meningococcal or Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) meningitis are at increased risk of getting infected and may need preventive antibiotics,” they also state that “close contacts of a person with meningitis caused by other bacteria, such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, do not need antibiotics.”
And you often don’t need to take any preventive measures if you are exposed to someone with viral meningitis.
While that might sound scary, it is basically because you typically aren’t at big risk after this kind of exposure. You could get the same virus, but the chances that it would spread and also cause meningitis are very unlikely.
Other types of meningitis, like primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) and fungal and parasitic meningitis aren’t even contagious.
The Histoplasma fungus spreads from bird or bat droppings, for example, not from one person to another.
And parasites typically spread from ingesting raw or undercooked food, or in the case of Baylisascaris procyonis, from ingesting something contaminated with infectious parasite eggs in raccoon feces.
What to Do If Your Unvaccinated Child Is Exposed to Meningitis
Vaccines can prevent a number of different types of meningitis.
While these meningitis vaccines don’t protect us from all of the different types of viruses, bacteria, and other organisms that can cause meningitis, they do prevent many of the most common.
So what do you do if your unvaccinated child is exposed to meningitis?
You should immediately call your pediatrician or local healthy department, because they might need:
- antibiotics (usually rifampin, ciprofloxacin, or ceftriaxone) if the meningitis was caused by Neisseria meningitidis
- antibiotics (rifampin) if the meningitis was caused by Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
The availability of these antibiotics isn’t a good reason to skip or delay getting vaccinated though, as you won’t always know when your kids have been exposed to meningitis and not all types of vaccine-preventable meningitis can be prevented with antibiotics.
Of course, getting fully vaccinated on time is the best way to prevent many of these types of meningitis and other life-threatening diseases.
What to Do If Your Vaccinated Child Is Exposed to Meningitis
Even if your child is vaccinated, they might still need preventative antibiotics if they are exposed to someone with Hib or meningococcal meningitis, as vaccines are not 100% effective.
“Regardless of immunization status, close contacts of all people with invasive meningococcal disease , whether endemic or in an outbreak situation, are at high risk of infection and should receive chemoprophylaxis.”
AAP Red Book on Meningococcal Infections
This is especially true if they are not fully vaccinated.
In the case of exposure to Hib meningitis, antibiotic prophylaxis would be recommended if:
- the child is fully vaccinated, but there is a young child, under age 4 years, in the house who is unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated
- the child is fully vaccinated, but there is another child in the house who is immunocompromised
- the child is only partially vaccinated and under age 4 years
- there is an outbreak in a preschool or daycare, with 2 or more cases within 60 days
And anyone exposed to someone with meningococcal meningitis should likely get antibiotics (chemoprophylaxis), even if they are fully vaccinated.
Talk to your pediatrician or local health department if your child is exposed to meningitis and you aren’t sure what to do, whether or not your child has been vaccinated.
What to Know About Getting Exposed to Meningitis
Learn what to do if your child is exposed to someone with meningitis, especially if they are unvaccinated, or have been exposed to someone with Hib meningitis or meningococcal disease.
More on Getting Exposed to Meningitis
- CDC – Bacterial Meningitis
- CDC – Meningococcal Disease (Pink Book)
- AAP – Hib Infections (Red Book)
- AAP – Meningococcal Infections (Red Book)
- Meningococcal Disease: Fact Sheet
- Meningococcal Disease Questions and Answers
- Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) Disease Questions and Answers
- Why We Vaccinate Against Meningitis
- Five Facts about Meningococcal Disease and Prevention