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    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 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.

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