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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 no supportive treatment.
Anyone can get this condition. These people are at greatest risk:
Children younger than 5
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)
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.
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 doctor right away if you have a severe headache with any of the following:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, and 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.
Starting at 9 months through 10 years, some children in the United States should receive another vaccine that helps prevent a different type of bacterial meningitis, meningococcal meningitis. Two doses of this vaccine, MCV4, are recommended for all children and teens ages 11 through 18. It can also be given to adults up to age 55 who are:
A college freshman living in a dorm
A military recruit
Without a spleen or who have a damaged spleen
Deficient in terminal complement
A microbiologist who is routinely exposed to Neisseria meningitis
Traveling to or living in countries in which the disease is common
MPSV4 is another meningococcal vaccine that can be given to children ages 2 and older, teens, and adults up to and older than 55. Your doctor can tell you which vaccines are right for you and your family.
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.