Meningitis can be a serious infection, and it can be contagious — which is why outbreaks make the news. However, it's also pretty rare.
What Is Meningitis?
Meningitis is inflammation of membranes around the brain and spinal cord called the meninges (pronounced: muh-NIN-jeez).
What Causes Meningitis?
Most cases are caused by bacteria or viruses, but some can be due to certain medicines or illnesses.
Many of the bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis are fairly common and cause other routine illnesses. Both kinds of meningitis spread like most other common infections do — someone who's infected touches, kisses, or coughs or sneezes on someone who isn't infected.
Bacterial meningitis is rare, but is usually serious and can be life-threatening if not treated right away.
In some cases of bacterial meningitis, the bacteria spread to the meninges from a severe head trauma or a severe local infection, such as a serious ear infection or nasal sinus infection (sinusitis).
Viral meningitis (also called aseptic meningitis) is more common than bacterial meningitis and usually less serious.
Many of the viruses that cause meningitis are common, such as those that cause colds, diarrhea, cold sores, and the flu.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Meningitis?
Meningitis symptoms vary, depending on the person's age and the cause of the infection. The first symptoms can come on quickly or start several days after someone has had a cold, diarrhea, vomiting, or other signs of an infection.
Common symptoms include:
- lack of energy
- sensitivity to light
- stiff neck
- skin rashes
How Is Meningitis Diagnosed?
Bacterial meningitis can be very serious. So if you see symptoms or think you could have meningitis, it's important to see the doctor right away.
If meningitis is suspected, the doctor will order tests, probably including a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to collect a sample of spinal fluid. This test will show any signs of inflammation and whether the infection is due to a virus or bacteria.
How Is Meningitis Treated?
Most cases of viral meningitis end within 7 to 10 days. Some people might need to be treated in the hospital, although most teens can recover at home if they're not too ill. Treatment to ease symptoms includes rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain medicine.
If bacterial meningitis is diagnosed — or even suspected — doctors will start intravenous (IV) antibiotics as soon as possible. Fluids may be given to replace those lost to fever, sweating, vomiting, and poor appetite.
What Problems Can Happen?
Complications of bacterial meningitis might need extra treatment. Someone with shock or low blood pressure might get more IV fluids and medicines to increase blood pressure. Some may need extra oxygen or mechanical ventilation if they have trouble breathing.
Bacterial meningitis complications can be severe and include neurological problems, such as hearing loss, visual impairment, seizures, and learning disabilities. Because impaired hearing is a common complication, those who've had bacterial meningitis should have a hearing test after they recover.
The heart, kidneys, and adrenal glands also might be affected, depending on the cause of the infection. Although some people develop long-lasting neurological problems, most who get a quick diagnosis and treatment recover fully.
Can Meningitis Be Prevented?
Routine immunization can go a long way toward preventing meningitis. The Hib, measles, mumps, polio, and pneumococcal vaccines can protect against meningitis caused by those germs.
Although bacterial meningitis can seem scary, the chance of getting it is quite low. However, because it can be so serious, doctors now recommend that all teens get vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis. Many colleges actually require their students to get meningitis vaccines.
Wash your hands well and often, particularly before eating and after using the bathroom, and if you work closely with kids (as in a daycare). Avoid close contact with someone who's obviously ill and don't share food, drinks, or eating utensils.
In some cases, doctors may give antibiotics to anyone who has been in close contact with a person who has bacterial meningitis to help prevent infection.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Get medical care right away if you think that you could have meningitis or you have symptoms such as vomiting, headache, tiredness or confusion, neck stiffness, rash, and fever.
If you've been near someone who has meningitis, call your doctor to ask whether preventive medicine is recommended.