Types of Meningitis

What's the Difference Between Bacterial and Viral Meningitis?

Bacterial and viral are the 2 most common forms of meningitis.1 There are actually 5 different types of meningitis1:

  • Bacterial
  • Fungal
  • Non-infectious
  • Viral
  • Parasitic

This may be why they are sometimes confused for one another. Here’s the information you need to help tell them apart.

Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is usually severe and can even be deadly.2 For example, though rare, meningococcal meningitis is a type of bacterial meningitis that can cause3-6:

  • Serious complications, such as amputations, scarring, and brain damage in about 1 in 5 people
  • Death in 10%-15% of cases even when appropriate antibiotic therapy is used

Learn more about meningococcal disease

Fortunately, most of the bacteria that cause meningitis are not as contagious as the viruses that cause the common cold or the flu.2 Meningitis-causing bacteria aren't usually spread through casual contact with someone who is infected.2 Rather, the bacteria that cause meningococcal meningitis are spread through the exchange of respiratory secretions (eg, kissing, sharing drinks, or sharing eating utensils) with someone who is infected.2

Most importantly, unlike the most common forms of viral meningitis, the most common forms of bacterial meningitis are vaccine-preventable.7

Help protect your teen from meningitis

Viral Meningitis

Though it can be fatal, viral meningitis is often less severe than bacterial meningitis.8 Most people with viral meningitis usually recover in 7 to 10 days without specific treatment.8 The most common forms of viral meningitis are not preventable with a vaccine.3,9

The viruses that commonly cause meningitis can spread the same way that bacterial meningitis does (eg, through kissing, sharing drinks, or sharing eating utensils).8 Also, viral meningitis, which is more prevalent during the summer and fall months, has symptoms that are similar to those of bacterial meningitis, including8-10:

  • Sudden fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Light sensitivity

Viral meningitis can affect anyone though it occurs mostly in children younger than 5 years of age.8,10 If you believe that you or a loved one has viral meningitis, see a doctor immediately.

Next: Meningitis Vaccination


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Meningitis. http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/index.html. 2014. Accessed August 28, 2014.
  2. CDC. Bacterial Meningitis. http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/bacterial.html. 2014. Accessed August 28, 2014.
  3. Atkinson W, Wolfe S, Hamborsky J, McIntyre L, eds. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases (The Pink Book). 12th ed. Washington, DC: Public Health Foundation; 2011.
  4. Borg J, Christie D, Coen PG, Booy R, Viner RM. Outcomes of meningococcal disease in adolescence: prospective, matched-cohort study. Pediatrics. 2009;123(3):e502-e509.
  5. Erickson LJ, De Wals P, McMahon J, Heim S. Complications of meningococcal disease in college students. Clin Infect Dis. 2001;33(5):737-739.
  6. Erickson L, De Wals P. Complications and sequelae of meningococcal disease in Quebec, Canada, 1990-1994. Clin Infect Dis. 1998;26(5):1159-1164.
  7. CDC. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended immunization schedules for persons aged 0 through 18 years and adults aged 19 years and older—United States, 2013. MMWR. 2013;62(suppl):1-19.
  8. CDC. Viral Meningitis. http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/viral.html. 2014. Accessed August 28, 2014.
  9. Logan SA, MacMahon E. Viral meningitis. BMJ. 2008;336(7634):36-40.
  10. Tunkel AR, van de Beek D, Scheld MW. Acute meningitis. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett’s Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier; 2010:1189-1229.