What Is Meningitis?
Meningitis is a rare infection that affects the delicate membranes -- called meninges -- that cover the brain and spinal cord. You or your children can catch it.
There are several causes of this disease, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Bacterial meningitis can be life-threatening and spreads between people in close contact with each other.
Viral meningitis tends to be less severe, and most people recover completely without treatment.
Fungal meningitis is a rare form of the disease. It usually happens only in people whose immune system -- the body's defense against germs -- has been weakened.
Symptoms of Meningitis
Meningitis symptoms can develop within hours or days and may include:
- Numbness in your face
- Sensitivity to light
- Stiff neck so that you can’t lower your chin to your chest
- Upset stomach or vomiting
Causes of Meningitis
Meningitis is almost always caused by a bacterial or viral infection that begins somewhere else in your body, like your ears, sinuses, or throat.
Less common causes of meningitis include:
- Autoimmune disorders
- Cancer medications
It's an extremely serious illness. You or your child will need to get medical help right away. It can be life-threatening or lead to brain damage unless you get quick treatment.
Several kinds of bacteria can cause bacterial meningitis. The most common ones in the U.S. are:
- Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus)
- Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus)
- Listeria monocytogenes (in older people, pregnant women, or those with immune system problems)
A bacteria called Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) was a common cause of meningitis in babies and young children until the Hib vaccine became available for infants. There are also vaccines for Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae. Experts recommend that all children get them, as well as all adults who are at a higher risk for the disease.
In many cases, bacterial meningitis starts when bacteria get into your bloodstream from your sinuses, ears, or throat. The bacteria travel through your bloodstream to your brain.
The bacteria that cause meningitis can spread when people who are infected cough or sneeze. If you or your child has been around someone who has bacterial meningitis, ask your doctor what steps you should take to avoid catching it.
Viral meningitis is more common than the bacterial form and generally -- but not always -- less serious. A number of viruses can trigger the disease, including several that can cause diarrhea.
Fungal meningitis is much less common than the bacterial or viral forms. Healthy people rarely get it. Someone with a problem with their immune system -- because they have AIDS, for example -- is more likely to become infected with this form of meningitis.
Your doctor will ask about your medical history and do a physical exam, including checking your neck for stiffness and looking for a skin rash that might suggest a bacterial infection. They will also need to do tests that can include:
- Blood tests to find bacteria
- CT or MRI scans of your head to find swelling or inflammation
- Spinal tap, in which a health care worker uses a needle to take fluid from around your spinal cord. It can tell what’s causing your meningitis.
Treatment for Meningitis
Your treatment will depend on the type of meningitis you have.
Bacterial meningitis needs immediate treatment with antibiotics. Your doctor might give you a general, or broad-spectrum, antibiotic even before they’ve found the exact bacteria that caused your illness and then change to a drug that targets the specific bacteria they find. You might also get corticosteroids to reduce inflammation.
Viral meningitis usually goes away on its own without treatment. Your doctor might tell you to stay in bed, drink plenty of fluids, and take over-the-counter pain medicines if you have fever or aches. If a virus like herpes or influenza caused your illness, you might take antiviral medication.
Antifungal medications can treat fungal meningitis.
Who's More Likely to Get Meningitis?
Anyone can get meningitis, but research shows that it's more common in these age groups:
- Children under 5
- Teenagers and young adults ages 16-25
- Adults over 55
Meningitis is more of a danger for people with certain medical conditions, such as a damaged or missing spleen, long-term disease, or immune system disorders.
Because certain germs that cause meningitis can spread easily, outbreaks are most likely to happen in places where people live close to each other. College students in dorms or military recruits in barracks can be more likely to catch the disease. So are people who travel to areas where meningitis is more common, such as parts of Africa.