A procedure called a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, will help determine whether someone has meningitis. During the procedure, an area of the lower back is injected with an anesthetic, and a needle is slipped between two bones in the spine to obtain a small sample of spinal fluid. The fluid is normally clear, so if it appears cloudy and contains white blood cells, you may have meningitis.
Lab analysis will help determine which specific type of meningitis you have -- bacterial, viral, or fungal. Samples of blood, urine, and secretions from your nose or ears may also be taken. Because the disease can progress very rapidly, treatment will begin immediately -- even before the results of the tests are known.
Despite its name, the bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b, or Hib, does not cause the flu. It does, however, cause Hib disease, a serious health threat to children, especially those under age 5. Fortunately, the Hib vaccine, available since 1992, provides safe and effective protection against that threat.
The bacterial form of meningitis is especially life-threatening and must be treated quickly. You will likely be admitted to the hospital to receive antibiotics intravenously until the doctor receives the results of a spinal tap. If you have bacterial meningitis, you will continue to receive antibiotics until the infection is cured, possibly for as long as two weeks. Because bacterial meningitis is contagious, you will probably stay in an isolated room for at least 48 hours. Meningitis can make the eyes sensitive to light, so you may prefer a darkened room. You will receive plenty of liquids and drugs to relieve headache and fever. To protect you from becoming re-infected, doctors will look for a source of the infection, such as an infected sinus.
If you have the type of bacterial meningitis called meningococcal meningitis, the people close to you are at risk of becoming infected. Your doctor may recommend that they take an antibiotic to prevent infection. Very fast treatment of this type of meningitis is vital, since it is fatal 10%-14% of the time in the U.S.
Antibiotics are not effective for treating viral meningitis and, in most cases, the infection resolves on its own with time. Viral meningitis is usually much less severe and requires only a few days at most in the hospital. During this time, you will receive supportive care, such as intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration as well as painkillers.
If you have fungal meningitis, you will receive antifungal medications in the hospital that can fight this type of infection. Treatment will also consist of taking fluids to prevent dehydration and drugs to control pain and fever.
SOURCES: Shmaefsky, B. Menegitis (Deadly Diseases and Epidemics), Chelsea House Publications, 2004. Menaker, J. Journal of Emergency Medicine,July 2005. Yogev, R. Drugs, 2005. Gottfried, K. Southern Medical Journal, June 2005.