Meningitis is inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. It's 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. They are:
This is fairly common. It usually doesn't cause serious illness. In severe cases, it can cause prolonged fever and seizures.
This isn't as common, but it's very serious. It needs to be treated right away to prevent brain damage and death.
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. Most forms of meningitis are contagious. The germs that cause it can be passed from one person to another.
The most common symptoms in teens and adults are:
Children, older adults, and people with other medical problems may have different symptoms:
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 it's not treated right away.
Your doctor will ask questions about your health and do an exam. A lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, is usually done to check for meningitis. A sample of fluid is removed from around the spine and tested. Your doctor may do other tests, such as blood tests, a CT scan, or an MRI.
With mild cases of viral meningitis, you may only need home treatment, like drinking extra fluids and taking medicine for pain and fever. Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics in a hospital. You may also get steroid medicine. You'll be watched carefully to prevent serious problems such as hearing loss, seizures, or brain damage.
The best way to protect your child from meningitis is to make sure that your child gets all the standard vaccines for children. These include shots for meningitis, measles, chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) disease, and pneumococcal infection. Talk to the doctor about whether your child needs the meningococcal vaccine.
Germs that cause meningitis can be spread in many ways. This includes:
Risk factors for meningitis include:
Certain medical problems can also increase your risk for meningitis.
Childhood vaccinations are the best way to prevent meningitis. You also can take other steps to lower your risk of getting or spreading meningitis. Here are some things you can do.
These shots prevent germs from causing some of the diseases that can lead to meningitis. They include shots for:
Taking antibiotics may keep you from getting the illness. If your contact is only casual—for example, at school or at work—you may not need to take antibiotics.
Wash your hands after using the toilet or helping a sick child use the toilet, after changing a sick baby's diaper, and after handling used bedsheets, towels, clothes, or personal items of a sick person.
And take steps to prevent bites from bugs, such as mosquitoes and ticks, that might carry disease-causing bacteria or viruses.
A link has been found between meningitis and cochlear implants for severe hearing loss. To help protect against meningitis, experts recommend that people with cochlear implants get a pneumococcal shot. Also, some people with implants have ear infections before they get meningitis, so it's important to treat ear infections right away with antibiotics.
Symptoms of bacterial meningitis most often appear all of a sudden.
Symptoms of viral meningitis may appear all of a sudden or may develop slowly over a period of days.
The most common symptoms of either form of meningitis include:
Less common symptoms include:
It's very important to see a doctor right away if you or your child has these symptoms. Only a doctor can tell if they are caused by viral or bacterial meningitis. And the bacterial type can be deadly if it's not treated right away.
Babies, young children, older adults, and people with other medical conditions may not have the usual symptoms of meningitis.
The course of meningitis often depends on your age, general health, and the organism causing the infection. The illness can range from mild to severe.
Viral meningitis is more common in the late summer and early fall. It usually doesn't cause serious illness. A visit to the doctor followed by home treatment may be all you need.
You may get better within 2 weeks. But some people may feel lightheaded and tired for several months after the illness.
Bacterial meningitis occurs most often from late winter to early spring. It usually causes serious illness and can cause death. The symptoms usually develop suddenly and last for 2 to 3 weeks. A person with bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics in a hospital.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if:
Call your doctor now if:
Call a doctor soon if you think you may have been exposed to meningitis. You can be treated with antibiotics. This may keep you from getting the illness.
Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach.
It's not a good choice if you think that you or your child has meningitis, because you can't tell what type of meningitis it may be. Call your doctor as soon as symptoms appear.
Your doctor will ask questions about your health, do an exam, and do one or more tests.
The doctor will almost always do a lumbar puncture. A long, thin needle is put into the spinal canal. The doctor uses the needle to collect samples of spinal fluid to check for bacteria and viruses.
Other tests that may be done include a:
With mild cases of viral meningitis, you may only need home treatment. This includes drinking extra fluids and taking medicine for pain and fever.
Bacterial or severe viral meningitis may require treatment in a hospital. This includes:
Most healthy adults who have recovered from meningitis don't need follow-up care. But babies and children always need follow-up care after they get better. This is to check for long-term problems caused by the illness.
Home treatment usually is all that is needed for most people who have viral meningitis.
Rest promotes healing and provides relief from symptoms such as a headache. Quiet activities, such as reading books, playing board games, watching videos, or listening to music, help pass the time.
Cool washcloths to the forehead, cool baths, and medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can be used to reduce fever, if needed. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
Minor pain usually can be relieved with medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil).
Drink plenty of fluids. Choose water and other clear liquids.
While you are sick, the most common complications include fever lasting for longer than expected and seizures. After you recover, watch for signs of long-term complications, such as hearing loss.
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.