What is meningitis?

Meningitis is inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord most often caused by germs that infect the fluid and lining. There are two kinds of meningitis:

  • Bacterial meningitis, caused by bacteria, is a serious illness that can lead to lasting problems. These can include brain damage, hearing loss and paralysis. When not treated quickly, bacterial meningitis can be fatal, sometimes within days.
  • Viral meningitis, caused by a virus, is less serious; most people get better with supportive treatment.

What are meningitis symptoms?

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

  • Stiff neck
  • Fever
  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness
  • Seizures
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea and vomiting

Note: Small children, the elderly and occasionally other people may not have headaches as early signs of meningitis. The unexplained confusion, even without a headache, can occasionally be due to meningitis.

Meningitis prevention

Meningitis can be prevented by washing your hands often with soap and water, and 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 physician whether you should take antibiotics to prevent infection.

How is meningitis diagnosed?

There are two tests used to diagnose meningitis. The best way to diagnose meningitis is by a lumbar puncture or spinal tap. The physician injects a numbing medicine to ease the 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 such as CT scans or MRI scans of the brain may be done to look for swelling and inflammation. Other CT scans and X-rays may be done to look for a source of the infection.

Meningitis treatment

There are no meningitis treatment medications for most types of viral meningitis; it often resolves on its own. After you've had a medical evaluation, the following may help your meningitis symptoms:

  • Rest in bed
  • Drinking plenty of fluids, like water, juice and warm soup to help prevent dehydration
  • Ask your physician about over-the-counter medications for a headache and fever
  • Avoid bright lights
  • Call your physician if symptoms worsen or there are signs of dehydration, such as dry mouth, intense thirst and little to no urination

Urgent or emergency hospital care is needed for bacterial meningitis. In the hospital, fluids and antibiotics are given through an IV line, as well as medicine to reduce inflammation. When bacterial meningitis symptoms are severe, a tube to aid with breathing may be needed.

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 when touched.
  • Person-to-person: You can come in contact with the meningitis 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, such as the sinuses or ears.
  • Fecal-oral: People infected with viral meningitis have the virus in their stool. If they don't wash their hands well after using the restroom, they can spread the germs to objects, such as telephones or doorknobs. If you touch the same objects, you can pick up the germs and transfer them to your mouth.