Meningitis is typically caused by an infection with microorganisms. Most infections are due to viruses, with bacteria, fungi, and protozoa being the next most common causes. It may also result from various non-infectious causes. The term aseptic meningitis refers to cases of meningitis in which no bacterial infection can be demonstrated. This type of meningitis is usually caused by viruses but it may be due to bacterial infection that has already been partially treated, when bacteria disappear from the meninges, or pathogens infect a space adjacent to the meninges (e.g. sinusitis). Endocarditis (an infection of the heart valves which spreads small clusters of bacteria through the bloodstream) may cause aseptic meningitis. Aseptic meningitis may also result from infection with spirochetes, a type of bacteria that includes Treponema pallidum (the cause of syphilis) and Borrelia burgdorferi (known for causing Lyme disease). Meningitis may be encountered in cerebral malaria (malaria infecting the brain) or amoebic meningitis, meningitis due to infection with amoebae such as Naegleria fowleri, contracted from freshwater sources.
The types of bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis vary according to the infected individual’s age group.
In premature babies and newborns up to three months old, common causes are group B streptococci (subtypes III which normally inhabit the vagina and are mainly a cause during the first week of life) and bacteria that normally inhabit the digestive tract such as Escherichia coli (carrying the K1 antigen). Listeria monocytogenes (serotype IVb) may affect the newborn and occurs in epidemics.
Older children are more commonly affected by Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus) and Streptococcus pneumoniae (serotypes 6, 9, 14, 18 and 23) and those under five by Haemophilus influenzae type B (in countries that do not offer vaccination).
In adults, Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae together cause 80% of bacterial meningitis cases. Risk of infection with Listeria monocytogenes is increased in persons over 50 years old. The introduction of pneumococcal vaccine has lowered rates of pneumococcal meningitis in both children and adults.
Recent skull trauma potentially allows nasal cavity bacteria to enter the meningeal space. Similarly, devices in the brain and meninges, such as cerebral shunts, extraventricular drains or Ommaya reservoirs, carry an increased risk of meningitis. In these cases, the persons are more likely to be infected with Staphylococci, Pseudomonas, and other Gram-negative bacteria. These pathogens are also associated with meningitis in people with an impaired immune system. An infection in the head and neck area, such as otitis media or mastoiditis, can lead to meningitis in a small proportion of people. Recipients of cochlear implants for hearing loss are more at risk for pneumococcal meningitis.
Tuberculous meningitis, which is meningitis caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is more common in people from countries where tuberculosis is endemic, but is also encountered in persons with immune problems, such as AIDS.
Recurrent bacterial meningitis may be caused by persisting anatomical defects, either congenital or acquired, or by disorders of the immune system. Anatomical defects allow continuity between the external environment and the nervous system. The most common cause of recurrent meningitis is a skull fracture, particularly fractures that affect the base of the skull or extend towards the sinuses and petrous pyramids. Approximately 59% of recurrent meningitis cases are due to such anatomical abnormalities, 36% are due to immune deficiencies (such as complement deficiency, which predisposes especially to recurrent meningococcal meningitis), and 5% are due to ongoing infections in areas adjacent to the meninges.
Viruses that cause meningitis include enteroviruses, herpes simplex virus (generally type 2, which produces most genital sores; less commonly type 1), varicella zoster virus (known for causing chickenpox and shingles), mumps virus, HIV, and LCMV. Mollaret’s meningitis is a chronic recurrent form of herpes meningitis; it is thought to be caused by herpes simplex virus type 2.
There are a number of risk factors for fungal meningitis, including the use of immunosuppressants (such as after organ transplantation), HIV/AIDS, and the loss of immunity associated with aging. It is uncommon in those with a normal immune system but has occurred with medication contamination. Symptom onset is typically more gradual, with headaches and fever being present for at least a couple of weeks before diagnosis. The most common fungal meningitis is cryptococcal meningitis due to Cryptococcus neoformans. In Africa, cryptococcal meningitis is now the most common cause of meningitis in multiple studies, and it accounts for 20–25% of AIDS-related deaths in Africa. Other less common fungal pathogens which can cause meningitis include: Coccidioides immitis, Histoplasma capsulatum, Blastomyces dermatitidis, and Candida species.
A parasitic cause is often assumed when there is a predominance of eosinophils (a type of white blood cell) in the CSF. The most common parasites implicated are Angiostrongylus cantonensis, Gnathostoma spinigerum, Schistosoma, as well as the conditions cysticercosis, toxocariasis, baylisascariasis, paragonimiasis, and a number of rarer infections and noninfective conditions.
Meningitis may occur as the result of several non-infectious causes: spread of cancer to the meninges (malignant or neoplastic meningitis) and certain drugs (mainly non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics and intravenous immunoglobulins). It may also be caused by several inflammatory conditions, such as sarcoidosis (which is then called neurosarcoidosis), connective tissue disorders such as systemic lupus erythematosus, and certain forms of vasculitis (inflammatory conditions of the blood vessel wall), such as Behçet’s disease. Epidermoid cysts and dermoid cysts may cause meningitis by releasing irritant matter into the subarachnoid space. Rarely, migraine may cause meningitis, but this diagnosis is usually only made when other causes have been eliminated.
The meninges comprise three membranes that, together with the cerebrospinal fluid, enclose and protect the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system). The pia mater is a very delicate impermeable membrane that firmly adheres to the surface of the brain, following all the minor contours. The arachnoid mater (so named because of its spider-web-like appearance) is a loosely fitting sac on top of the pia mater. The subarachnoid space separates the arachnoid and pia mater membranes and is filled with cerebrospinal fluid. The outermost membrane, the dura mater, is a thick durable membrane, which is attached to both the arachnoid membrane and the skull.
In bacterial meningitis, bacteria reach the meninges by one of two main routes: through the bloodstream or through direct contact between the meninges and either the nasal cavity or the skin. In most cases, meningitis follows invasion of the bloodstream by organisms that live upon mucous surfaces such as the nasal cavity. This is often in turn preceded by viral infections, which break down the normal barrier provided by the mucous surfaces. Once bacteria have entered the bloodstream, they enter the subarachnoid space in places where the blood–brain barrier is vulnerable—such as the choroid plexus. Meningitis occurs in 25% of newborns with bloodstream infections due to group B streptococci; this phenomenon is less common in adults. Direct contamination of the cerebrospinal fluid may arise from indwelling devices, skull fractures, or infections of the nasopharynx or the nasal sinuses that have formed a tract with the subarachnoid space (see above); occasionally, congenital defects of the dura mater can be identified.