Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Children's Vaccines Health Center

Font Size

Meningitis - Topic Overview

Meningitis is inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. It is usually caused by an infection.

The infection occurs most often in children, teens, and young adults. Also at risk are older adults and people who have long-term health problems, such as a weakened immune system.

There are two main kinds of meningitis:

  • Viral meningitis is fairly common. It usually doesn't cause serious illness. In severe cases, it can cause prolonged fever and seizures.
  • Bacterial meningitis isn't as common, but it's very serious. It needs to be treated right away to prevent brain damage and death.

Viral meningitis is caused by viruses. Bacterial meningitis is caused by bacteria.

Meningitis can also be caused by other organisms and some medicines, but this is rare.

Meningitis is contagious. The germs that cause it can be passed from one person to another through coughing and sneezing and through close contact.

The most common symptoms among teens and young adults are:

  • A stiff and painful neck, especially when you try to touch your chin to your chest.
  • Fever.
  • Headache.
  • Vomiting.
  • Trouble staying awake.
  • Seizures.

Children, older adults, and people with other medical problems may have different symptoms:

  • Babies may be cranky and refuse to eat. They may have a rash. They may cry when held.
  • Young children may act like they have the flu. They may cough or have trouble breathing.
  • Older adults and people with other medical problems may have only a slight headache and fever.

It is very important to see a doctor right away if you or your child has these symptoms. Only a doctor can tell whether they are caused by viral or bacterial meningitis. And bacterial meningitis can be deadly if not treated right away.

Your doctor will ask questions about your health, do an exam, and use one or more tests.

Lumbar puncture is the most important lab test for meningitis. It is also called a spinal tap. A sample of fluid is removed from around the spine and tested to see if it contains organisms that cause the illness.

Your doctor may also order other tests, such as blood tests, a CT scan, or an MRI.

Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics in a hospital. You may also get dexamethasone, a type of steroid medicine. And you will be watched carefully to prevent serious problems such as hearing loss, seizures, and brain damage.

But viral meningitis is more common, and most people with this form of the illness get better in about 2 weeks. With mild cases, you may only need home treatment. Home treatment includes taking medicine for fever and pain and drinking enough fluids to stay hydrated.

1|2
Next Article:

Today on WebMD

Baby getting vaccinated
Is there a link? Get the facts.
syringes and graph illustration
Get a customized vaccine schedule.
 
baby getting a vaccine
Know the benefits and the risk
nurse holding syringe in front of girl
Should your child have it?
 

What To Know About The HPV Vaccine
Article
24 Kid Illnesses Parents Should Know
Slideshow
 
Nausea and Vomiting Remedies Slideshow
Article
Managing Immunization Schedules For Kids
Video
 

Doctor administering vaccine to toddler
Video
gloved hand holding syringe
Article
 
infant receiving injection
Tool
pills
Quiz
 

WebMD Special Sections