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Meningitis


Topic Overview

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. It is usually caused by an infection.

The infection occurs most often in children, teens, and young adults. Also at risk are older adults and people who have long-term health problems, such as a weakened immune system.

There are two main kinds of meningitis:

  • Viral meningitis is fairly common. It usually doesn't cause serious illness. In severe cases, it can cause prolonged fever and seizures.
  • Bacterial meningitis isn't as common, but it's very serious. It needs to be treated right away to prevent brain damage and death.

What causes meningitis?

Viral meningitis is caused by viruses. Bacterial meningitis is caused by bacteria.

Meningitis can also be caused by other organisms and some medicines, but this is rare.

Meningitis is contagious. The germs that cause it can be passed from one person to another through coughing and sneezing and through close contact.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms among teens and young adults are:

  • A stiff and painful neck, especially when you try to touch your chin to your chest.
  • Fever.
  • Headache.
  • Vomiting.
  • Trouble staying awake.
  • Seizures.

Children, older adults, and people with other medical problems may have different symptoms:

  • Babies may be cranky and refuse to eat. They may have a rash. They may cry when held.
  • Young children may act like they have the flu. They may cough or have trouble breathing.
  • Older adults and people with other medical problems may have only a slight headache and fever.

It is very important to see a doctor right away if you or your child has these symptoms. Only a doctor can tell whether they are caused by viral or bacterial meningitis. And bacterial meningitis can be deadly if not treated right away.

How is meningitis diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions about your health, do an exam, and use one or more tests.

Lumbar puncture is the most important lab test for meningitis. It is also called a spinal tap. A sample of fluid is removed from around the spine and tested to see if it contains organisms that cause the illness.

Your doctor may also order other tests, such as blood tests, a CT scan, or an MRI.

How is it treated?

Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics in a hospital. You may also get dexamethasone, a type of steroid medicine. And you will be watched carefully to prevent serious problems such as hearing loss, seizures, and brain damage.

But viral meningitis is more common, and most people with this form of the illness get better in about 2 weeks. With mild cases, you may only need home treatment. Home treatment includes taking medicine for fever and pain and drinking enough fluids to stay hydrated.

Can meningitis be prevented?

The best way to protect your child from meningitis is to make sure he or she gets all the standard immunizations for children. These include shots for measles, chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) disease, and pneumococcal infection.

Talk to your doctor about whether you or your child also needs the meningococcal vaccine, which is a shot to prevent bacterial meningitis. Two doses are recommended for all adolescents. And at least one dose is recommended for anyone 6 weeks of age and older who has immune system problems or a damaged or missing spleen. The vaccine is also needed for travel to countries known to have meningitis outbreaks, such as the countries in Africa south of the Sahara Desert.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about meningitis:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

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eMedicineHealth Medical Reference from Healthwise

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