Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) surrounding your brain and spinal cord. The swelling from meningitis typically triggers symptoms such as headache, fever and a stiff neck. Early treatment of bacterial meningitis can prevent serious complications.



Meningitis can be care caused by a viral infection, but bacterial, parasitic and fungal infections are other causes


Early meningitis symptoms may mimic the flu (influenza). Symptoms may develop over several hours or over a few days. Possible signs and symptoms in anyone older than the age of 2 include: sudden high fever, stiff neck; severe headache that seems different than normal; headache with nausea or vomiting; confusion or difficulty concentrating; seizures; sleepiness or difficulty waking; sensitivity to light; no appetite or thirst; skin rash (sometimes, such as in meningococcal meningitis).

Newborns and infants may show these signs: high fever, constant crying; excessive sleepiness or irritability; inactivity or sluggishness; poor feeding; a bulge in the soft spot on top of a baby's head (fontanel); stiffness in a baby's body and neck. Infants with meningitis may be difficult to comfort, and may even cry harder when held.


Viral infections are the most common cause of meningitis, followed by bacterial infections and, rarely, fungal infections. Because bacterial infections can be life-threatening, identifying the cause is essential.


Diagnosis is based on a medical history, a physical exam and certain diagnostic tests. During the exam, health professionals may check for signs of infection around the head, ears, throat and the skin along the spine.

Children may undergo the following diagnostic tests: blood cultures (blood samples are placed in a special dish to see if it grows microorganisms, particularly bacteria; a sample may also be placed on a slide and stained, then studied under a microscope for bacteria); imaging (computerized tomography or magnetic resonance imaging, scans of the head may show swelling or inflammation; X-rays or CT scans of the chest or sinuses also may show infection in other areas that may be associated with meningitis); spinal tap or lumbar puncture (for a definitive diagnosis of meningitis, you'll need a spinal tap to collect cerebrospinal fluid)


The treatment depends on the type of meningitis. Acute bacterial meningitis must be treated immediately with intravenous antibiotics and sometimes corticosteroids. This helps to ensure recovery and reduce the risk of complications, such as brain swelling and seizures.

The antibiotic or combination of antibiotics depends on the type of bacteria causing the infection. Your doctor may recommend a broad-spectrum antibiotic until he or she can determine the exact cause of the meningitis.

Antibiotics can't cure viral meningitis, and most cases improve on their own in several weeks. Treatment of mild cases of viral meningitis usually includes bed rest, plenty of fluids, over-the-counter pain medications to help reduce fever and relieve body aches.


Common bacteria or viruses that can cause meningitis can spread through coughing, sneezing, kissing, or sharing eating utensils, a toothbrush or a cigarette. Good hygiene associated to such habits can prevent meningitis.

Some forms of bacterial meningitis are preventable with the following vaccinations: haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine; pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13); pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23); meningococcal conjugate vaccine.


Meningitis complications can be severe. The longer the disease without treatment, the greater the risk of seizures and permanent neurological damage, including hearing loss, memory difficulty, learning disabilities, brain damage, seizures, kidney failure; shock, death. With prompt treatment, even patients with severe meningitis can have good recovery.


Risk factors for meningitis include:

  • Skipping vaccinations. Risk rises for anyone who hasn't completed the recommended childhood or adult vaccination schedule.
  • Age. Most cases of viral meningitis occur in children younger than age 5. Bacterial meningitis is common in those under age 20.
  • Living in a community setting. College students living in dormitories, personnel on military bases, and children in boarding schools and child care facilities are at greater risk of meningococcal meningitis. This is probably because the bacterium is spread by the respiratory route, and spreads quickly through large groups.
  • Pregnancy. Pregnancy increases the risk of listeriosis — an infection caused by listeria bacteria, which may also cause meningitis. Listeriosis increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and premature delivery.

Compromised immune system. AIDS, alcoholism, diabetes, use of immunosuppressant drugs and other factors that affect your immune system also make you more susceptible to meningitis.