Meningitis: 12 Frequently Asked Questions

Medically Reviewed by Kumar Shital, DO on September 18, 2023
4 min read

Meningitis can be a very serious disease. If you or someone you love is at increased risk for meningitis, you may have lots of questions. Here are answers to some of the most common questions about meningitis.

1. What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an inflammation and swelling of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. These membranes are called meninges. Meningitis is most often caused by an infection. This disease can be fatal or cause serious lasting side effects. 

2. What are the causes of meningitis?
The two main causes of meningitis are viruses and bacteria. Common bacteria or viruses may cause infection in a part of the body -- the skin, gastrointestinal tract, or respiratory tract, for instance. They then may spread through the bloodstream to the nervous system. Bacteria can also enter the nervous system directly after severe head trauma or head surgery or following an infection in the head.
Fungi, protozoa, and other parasites are less common causes of meningitis. In very rare cases, cancer, other diseases, or certain medications may also lead to inflammation of the meninges.

3. What is bacterial meningitis?
Bacterial meningitis can be deadly and requires immediate medical attention. It occurs more often in the winter months A common cause affecting teens is the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, which causes meningococcal disease. It can be fatal if you don't receive treatment right away. The bacteria that cause it live in the noses and throats of up to a quarter of the population. It is not known why these bacteria sometimes travel to the nervous system and cause meningitis. Another leading cause of bacterial meningitis is Streptococcus pneumoniae.

4. What is viral meningitis?
Viral meningitis is more common and usually less serious. It tends to occur more often in the summer and fall. Because of its flu-like symptoms, many people mistake it for the flu. Viruses that cause "stomach flu" are a cause of viral meningitis, but most people who have these infections don't develop meningitis. Other viruses that lead to meningitis are those that cause chickenpox, mononucleosis (mono), and herpes. Symptoms can be similar to those of bacterial meningitis.

5. Who is at risk for meningitis?
A person of any age may develop bacterial meningitis. But it is more common in infants and young children and in people older than age 60. Because of close contact with peers, teens and college students are at greater risk, too. Although more common in children, viral meningitis occurs in people of all ages. Having a weakened immune system or traveling to certain foreign countries also increases your risk for meningitis.

6. Is meningitis contagious?
Close contact - not casual contact at work or school - can spread the bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis. This includes kissing, coughing, or sneezing. Sharing eating utensils, glasses, food, or towels can also spread these bacteria and viruses.

7. What are the signs and symptoms of meningitis?
Although symptoms may vary, the more common signs and symptoms of meningitis include:

  • High fever
  • Severe, persistent headaches
  • Neck stiffness
  • Vomiting
  • Discomfort in bright lights
  • Drowsiness
  • Lack of appetite

Later symptoms can include rash, seizure, and coma. Infants with meningitis may be lethargic, irritable, or not feed well.

8. What should I do if someone I know has symptoms of meningitis?
Call the doctor and describe the signs and symptoms. If you cannot reach a doctor, go to the nearest emergency room right away. If you do not have transportation, call 911.

9. How do doctors diagnose meningitis?
In addition to taking a history and doing a physical exam, the doctor will collect a sample of spinal fluid, called a spinal tap. The doctor inserts a needle into the lower base of the spinal cord but inside the sac to remove the fluid. The doctor examines this sample for signs of inflammation and infection.

Other tests may include:

  • A neurological exam to test nerve, motor, and sensory function; hearing, speech, and vision; balance; mental status
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Throat culture
  • Imaging such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may show abnormalities in the brain tissue. Electroencephalography (EEG) will be performed if there are concerns of seizures.

10. How do doctors treat meningitis?
Depending upon the severity of the illness, you may need to be hospitalized. Bacterial infections require prompt treatment with intravenous antibiotics. This may begin even before the diagnosis is confirmed. Treatment for viral infections is aimed at relieving symptoms and supportive care (IV fluids, fever-reducing medications, etc.).
As needed, treatment may also include:

11. What are the long-term effects of meningitis?
The outcome of meningitis depends on the cause of the infection, how quickly treatment begins, and how ill the person becomes. However, these are possible long-term side effects of the disease:

12. Is it possible to prevent meningitis?
There are four vaccines available to prevent bacterial meningitis. If not previously vaccinated, teens entering high school or entering college (and who will be living in a dormitory) should be vaccinated.
The doctor may suggest other steps to prevent meningitis:

  • Antibiotics, if you've come into close contact with someone who has had some kinds of bacterial meningitis
  • Other vaccines
  • Good hygiene, such as regular hand washing
  • Not sharing food, drinks, or utensils