Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) surrounding your brain and spinal cord.
The swelling associated with meningitis often triggers the "hallmark" signs and symptoms of this condition, including headache, fever and a stiff neck.
Most cases of meningitis in the U.S. are caused by a viral infection, but bacterial and fungal infections also can lead to meningitis. Depending on the cause of the infection, meningitis can get better on its own in a couple of weeks — or it can be a life-threatening emergency requiring urgent antibiotic treatment.
If you suspect that you or someone in your family has meningitis, seek medical care right away. Early treatment of bacterial meningitis can prevent serious complications.
It's easy to mistake the early signs and symptoms of meningitis for the flu (influenza). Meningitis signs and symptoms may develop over several hours or over one or two days.
The signs and symptoms that may occur in anyone older than age of 2 include:
Signs in newborns
Infants with meningitis may be difficult to comfort, and may even cry harder when picked up.
When to see a doctor
Viral meningitis may improve without treatment, but bacterial meningitis is serious, can come on very quickly and requires prompt antibiotic treatment to improve the chances of a recovery. Delaying treatment for bacterial meningitis increases the risk of permanent brain damage or death. In addition, bacterial meningitis can prove fatal in a matter of days.
There's no way to know what kind of meningitis you or your child has without seeing your doctor and undergoing spinal fluid testing.
It's also important to talk to your doctor if a family member or someone you work with has meningitis. You may need to take medications to prevent an infection.
Meningitis usually results from a viral infection, but the cause may also be a bacterial infection. Less commonly, a fungal infection may cause meningitis. Because bacterial infections are the most serious and can be life-threatening, identifying the source of the infection is an important part of developing a treatment plan.
A number of strains of bacteria can cause acute bacterial meningitis. The most common include:
In 2012, fungal meningitis made the news because contaminated corticosteroid injections caused a multistate outbreak. Fungal meningitis cases were associated with contaminated medication injected into the spine for back or neck pain.
Other meningitis causes
Meningitis is an infection and inflammation of the fluid and three membranes (meninges) protecting your brain and spinal cord. The tough outer membrane is called the dura mater, and the delicate ...
Risk factors for meningitis include:
The complications of meningitis can be severe. The longer you or your child has the disease without treatment, the greater the risk of seizures and permanent neurological damage, including:
Preparing for your appointment
Depending on the cause, meningitis can be life-threatening. If you've been exposed to someone with bacterial meningitis and you develop symptoms, go to an emergency room and let medical staff know you may have meningitis.
If you're not sure what you have and call your doctor for an appointment, here's how to prepare for your visit.
What you can do
For meningitis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Drink plenty of fluids and take acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) to reduce your fever and body aches. Avoid aspirin and drugs called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, which may not be safe for people with untreated meningitis. Also avoid any medications that may make you less alert. Don't go to work or school.
Tests and diagnosis
Your family doctor or pediatrician can diagnose meningitis based on a medical history, a physical exam and certain diagnostic tests. During the exam, your doctor may check for signs of infection around the head, ears, throat and the skin along the spine. You or your child may undergo the following diagnostic tests:
Treatments and drugs
The treatment depends on the type of meningitis you or your child has.
Infected sinuses or mastoids — the bones behind the outer ear that connect to the middle ear — may need to be drained.
If the cause of your meningitis is a herpes virus, an antiviral medication is available.
Other types of meningitis
Fungal meningitis is treated with antifungal medications. However, these medications can have serious side effects, so treatment may be deferred until a laboratory can confirm that the cause is fungal. Chronic meningitis is treated based on the underlying cause, which is often fungal.
Noninfectious meningitis due to allergic reaction or autoimmune disease may be treated with cortisone medications. In some cases, no treatment may be required, because the condition can resolve on its own. Cancer-related meningitis requires therapy for the individual cancer.
Meningitis typically results from contagious infections. Common bacteria or viruses that can cause meningitis can spread through coughing, sneezing, kissing, or sharing eating utensils, a toothbrush or a cigarette. You're also at increased risk if you live or work with someone who has the disease.
These steps can help prevent meningitis:
Last Updated: 2013-03-19
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