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Meningitis is inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. It’s most often caused by germs that infect the fluid and lining. 

  • Bacterial meningitis (caused by bacteria) is a serious illness that can lead to lasting problems. These include brain damage, hearing loss, and paralysis. When not treated quickly, it can be fatal, sometimes within days.

  • Viral meningitis (caused by a virus) is less serious than bacterial meningitis. Most people get better with supportive treatment.

What are the risk factors for meningitis?Health care provider giving masks to man and woman before entering hospital room.

Anyone can get this condition. These people are at greatest risk:

  • Children younger than 5

  • Older adults

  • People who have had their spleen removed

  • People who are more likely to come in contact with meningitis germs (such as children in daycare, students in college dorms, and soldiers in military housing)

How does meningitis spread?

  • Droplets: Meningitis germs spread through the air in droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, laughs, or talks. You can breathe in the germs. Or, your hands can transfer the germs to your eyes, nose, or mouth.

  • Person-to-person: You can come in contact with the germs if you share food, a drinking glass, eating utensils, or a toothbrush with an infected person. Meningitis germs can also be spread through kissing.

  • Direct spread: The germs that cause meningitis can spread to the brain and spinal cord from an infection in another part of the body.

  • Fecal-oral: People infected with viral meningitis have the virus in their stool. If they don’t wash their hands well after using the bathroom, they can spread the germs to objects, such as telephones and doorknobs. If you touch the same objects, you can pick up the germs and then transfer them to your mouth.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

Viral and bacterial meningitis share many of the same symptoms. Symptoms start suddenly in both. You won’t know which type of meningitis you have, so act quickly. Call your health care provider right away if you have a severe headache with any of the following:

  • Stiff neck

  • Fever

  • Confusion

  • Sleepiness

  • Seizures

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Nausea and vomiting

Note: Small children, the elderly, and occasional other people may not have headaches as an early symptoms of meningitis. Unexplained confusion even without headache can occasionally be due to meningitis.

How is meningitis diagnosed?

  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): This is the best way to diagnose meningitis. The doctor first injects medicine to ease pain. Then, a needle is inserted into the back to take a small sample of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spine.

  • Imaging tests: X-rays and CT scans of the chest and skull may be done to look for swelling and inflammation.

How is viral meningitis treated?

There are no medicines to treat most types of viral meningitis. It often resolves on its own in about a week. After you have had an adequate medical evaluation the following may help your symptoms:

  • Rest in bed.

  • Drink plenty of fluids, such as water, juice, and warm soup, to prevent dehydration. A good rule is to drink enough so that you urinate your normal amount.

  • Ask the doctor about over-the-counter drugs for headache and fever.

  • Avoid bright lights, which may bother your eyes.

  • Call the doctor if symptoms worsen or there are signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth, intense thirst, and little or no urination.

How is bacterial meningitis treated?

Urgent or emergency hospital care is needed for bacterial meningitis. In the hospital, fluids and antibiotics are given through an IV (intravenous) line. Medicine to reduce inflammation may also be given. When symptoms are severe, a tube to aid breathing may be needed.

Vaccines for bacterial meningitis

There are several different vaccines for different types of bacterial meningitis.

The Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) vaccine prevents meningitis caused by a type of bacteria called Haemophilus influenza type b. It is recommended for all children younger than 5 years old. It is usually given to infants starting at 2 months of age as a series.

Pneumococcal bacteria can also cause meningitis. The new pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, PCV13, protects against the 13 types that cause the most severe pneumococcal infections. PCV13 is given to infants and toddlers by may be given to older children as well. Another vaccine, PPSV23, is given to older children with certain chronic medical conditions.

Another type of meningitis is meningococcal meningitis. Vaccination is recommended beginning in children at age 11 through the age of 18. Catch-up vaccines may be given to those older than 18. College freshmen living in dormitories are one group at high risk. Vaccination is also recommended for those at high-risk beginning at age 2 months through 10 years. High-risk infants and children include those:

  • With specific medical conditions:

    • Complement component deficiencies (immune system condition with increased risk of serious infections)

    • Functional or anatomic asplenia (meaning that the spleen does not work effectively or has been removed), including those with sickle cell disease

  • Who live in an area where there is a meningococcal disease outbreak

  • Who travel to areas where meningococcal diseases is common or where there is an outbreak 

To help prevent meningitis

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If you can’t wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand gel containing at least 60 percent alcohol.  

  • Avoid sharing personal items, such as food, drinking glasses, eating utensils, or towels.

  • If you have had close contact with someone who has meningitis, ask your doctor whether you should take antibiotics to prevent infection.