Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) surrounding your brain and spinal cord, usually due to the spread of an infection. The swelling associated with meningitis often triggers the "hallmark" signs and symptoms of this condition, including headache, fever and a stiff neck in anyone over the age of 2.
Most cases of meningitis 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 resolve on its own in a couple of weeks — or it can be a life-threatening emergency.
If you suspect that you or someone in your family has meningitis, seek medical care right away. Early treatment 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 and, in anyone over the age of 2, typically 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
There's no way to know what kind of meningitis you or your child has without seeing your doctor and undergoing spinal fluid testing.
Also talk to your doctor if a family member or someone you work with has meningitis. You may need to take medications to prevent getting sick.
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:
The most common signs and symptoms of enteroviral infections are rash, sore throat, diarrhea, joint aches and headache. These viruses tend to circulate in late summer and early fall. Viruses such as herpes simplex virus, La Crosse virus, West Nile virus and others also can cause viral meningitis.
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 ...
Not completing the childhood vaccine schedule increases your risk of meningitis. So do a few other risk factors:
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:
Other complications may include:
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:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
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:
If you have chronic meningitis caused by cancer or an inflammatory illness, you may need additional tests.
Treatments and drugs
The treatment depends on the type of meningitis you or your child has.
If you or your child has bacterial meningitis, your doctor may also recommend treatments for:
Infected sinuses or mastoids — the bones behind the outer ear that connect to the middle ear — may need to be drained. Infected fluid that has accumulated between the skull and the membranes that surround the brain also may need to be drained surgically.
If the cause of your meningitis is a herpes virus, there's an antiviral medication available.
Other types of meningitis
Fungal meningitis treatments are associated with harmful side effects, so treatment is often deferred until a laboratory can confirm the cause is fungal.
Non-infectious meningitis due to allergic reaction or autoimmune disease may be treated with cortisonelike 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: 2011-04-29
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