is characterized by inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. Specific vaccines are available and can prevent certain types of meningitis.

Meningitis Overview

Reviewed: July 18, 2014

Meningitis is a disease caused by the inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord known as the meninges. The inflammation is usually caused by an infection of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

Meningitis can either be caused by viral, bacteria, fungi, or parasitic infection. Meningitis can also be caused by non–infectious situations.

  • The most common causes of meningitis are viral infections that usually get better without treatment. Most viral meningitis is caused by enteroviruses.
  • Bacterial meningitis infections are usually severe. Bacteria meningitis is an emergency and will require immediate treatment in a hospital. Early diagnosis and treatment of bacterial meningitis is important in preventing serious complications.

You will not be able to tell if you have bacterial or viral meningitis by how you feel. Your doctor will have to determine the cause.

The severity of illness and the treatment for meningitis will differ depending on the cause. It is crucial to know what is causing the meningitis. Contact your doctor immediately if you have any symptoms of meningitis.


Meningitis Symptoms

Meningitis symptoms may include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck

Other symptoms that may be evident:

  • Agitation
  • Bulging fontanelles in babies (soft spot on infant’s head)
  • Decreased alertness
  • Poor feeding or irritability in children
  • Rapid breathing
  • Unusual posture, with the head and neck arched backwards


Meningitis Causes

Meningitis is a disease caused by the inflammation of the covering the brain and spinal cord known as the meninges. The inflammation is usually caused by an infection of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

Viral meningitis

Meningitis is commonly caused by viral infections. This type of meningitis usually will get better without any treatment. Most viral meningitis are caused by enteroviruses. Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis, and is milder. It usually occurs in the late summer and early fall. It commonly affects children and adults under age 30. The symptoms of viral meningitis usually lasts from 7 to 10 days.

  • Enteroviruses are most often spread from person to person through fecal contamination (which can occur when changing a diaper or using the toilet and not properly washing hands afterwards). Enteroviruses can also be spread through respiratory secretions (saliva, sputum, or nasal mucus) of an infected person.

Bacterial meningitis infections are very serious, and may result in death or brain damage, even if treated. Bacteria meningitis is an emergency which requires immediate treatment in a hospital. Symptoms usually appear quickly or over several days. Symptoms typically develop within 3-7 days after being exposed to bacteria.

  • There are several pathogens (types of germs) that can cause bacterial meningitis. Bacterial meningitis can be caused by Haemophilus influenzae (most often caused by type b, Hib), Streptococcus pneumoniae, group B Streptococcus, Listeria monocytogenes, and Neisseria meningitidis. Common causes of bacterial meningitis vary by age group.

Fungal meningitis is not contagious. Fungal meningitis can be caused by Cryptococcus, Histoplasma, Blastomyces, or Coccidioides. People with weakened immune systems, like those with HIV infection or cancer, are at higher risk for developing fungal meningitis.

Parasitic meningitis is caused by Naegleria fowleri and enters the body through the nose.

Meningitis may also be caused by:

  • Chemical irritation
  • Drug allergies
  • Cancer
  • Physical injury
  • Certain drugs

Other types of viruses that can cause meningitis:

  • Herpes viruses (People with cold sores or genital herpes are not at a greater risk of developing herpes meningitis)
  • Viruses that cause mumps and HIV
  • West Nile virus which is spread by mosquito bites

Meningitis Diagnosis

The doctor will examine you and look at the following:

  • Heart rate
  • Temperature
  • Mental status
  • To see if your neck is stiff

If meningitis is suspected, your doctor will order a lumbar puncture (spinal tap). during this procedure, a sample of spinal fluid (cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF) is removed for testing.

your doctor may order the following tests:

  • Blood culture
  • Chest x-ray
  • CT scan of the head  

Living With Meningitis

Specific vaccines are available and can prevent certain types of meningitis.

  • Haemophilus vaccine (HiB vaccine) in children helps prevent one type of bacterial meningitis.
  • The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine can prevent pneumococcal meningitis.
  • Meningococcal vaccination

Ask your doctor if any of these vaccines are recommended for you.

To prevent becoming infected, household members and others in close contact with people who have meningococcal meningitis should receive antibiotics.

Viral meningitis

For some types meningitis such as with viral meningitis, there are no available vaccines.

To reduce your chances of getting infected with a virus or passing one on to someone else:

  • Wash your hands frequently, especially after changing diapers, using the toilet, or coughing or blowing your nose.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
  • Avoid kissing or sharing cups or eating utensils with sick people; avoid sharing with others when you are sick.
  • Make sure you and your child are up to date with vaccinations.
  • Avoid bites from mosquitoes and other insects that carry diseases and can infect humans.
  • Control mice and rats in and/or around your home.

Fungal meningitis

Avoid soil and other environments that are likely to contain fungus. People with weakened immune systems such as those with HIV infection should avoid bird droppings and avoid digging and dusty activities specifically in areas where fungi like Histoplasma, Coccidioides, or Blastomyces species exist.

Parasitic Meningitis

Naegleria fowleri infects people when water containing the ameba enters the body through the nose. To reduce your risk, limit the amount of water that goes up your nose and reduce the chance Naegleria fowleri is in the water.

Meningitis Treatments

Bacterial meningitis- Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial meningitis. The specific type depends on which bacteria is causing the infection. Antibiotics do not treat viral meningitis.

Viral meningitis- Antiviral medicine may be given to those with herpes meningitis.

Fungal meningitis- Fungal meningitis is treated with long courses of high dose antifungal medications.

Parasitic meningitis- Several medications have shown to be effective in treating parasitic meningitis in the laboratory. However, their effectiveness is not clear since almost all infections have resulted in death, even after being treated.

Other treatments will include:

  • Fluids through a vein (IV)
  • Medicines to treat symptoms such as brain swelling, shock, and seizures

Meningitis Prognosis

Early diagnosis and treatment of bacterial meningitis is essential to prevent permanent neurological damage. Viral meningitis is usually not serious, and symptoms should disappear within 2 weeks with no lasting complications.

Possible Complications:

  • Brain damage
  • Buildup of fluid between the skull and brain
  • Hearing loss
  • Hydrocephalus (buildup of fluid inside the skull)
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death