Diagnosis and Treatment of Meningitis

Medically Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on April 12, 2023
2 min read

If your doctor is suspicious your teenager has meningitis, they will send you to the ER where they may get a procedure called a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap. It's the only way to confirm the diagnosis and the presence of the organism responsible for the infection.

During the Lumbar puncture, the doctor injects an area of your teen's lower back with an anesthetic, a drug that suppresses pain while the procedure is going on. The doctor then slips a needle between two vertebrae in the lower spine to get a small sample of spinal fluid. The fluid is normally clear, so if the lab shows it is cloudy and has white blood cells in it, your teen may have meningitis.

Lab tests will help figure out which type of meningitis your teen has -- bacterial, viral, or fungal. Your teen's doctor may also need to get samples of their blood or urine. Because the disease can move quickly, treatment sometimes starts right away, even before the test results come back.

The bacterial form of meningitis can be life-threatening and needs to be treated quickly. Your teen will likely stay in a hospital to get antibiotics put into their veins through an IV until the doctor gets the results of a spinal tap.

If the spinal fluid tests show your teen has bacterial meningitis, they'll need to keep up with the antibiotics until the infection goes away, possibly for as long as 2 weeks. Because bacterial meningitis can spread easily to others, they'll probably stay in an isolated room for at least 48 hours.

Meningitis can make the eyes sensitive to light, so your teen may prefer a darkened room. They'll get plenty of liquids and drugs to relieve headaches and fever. To keep them from getting reinfected, doctors will look for a source of the infection, such as an infected sinus.

If your teen has a type of bacterial meningitis called meningococcal meningitis, there's a risk that people close to them can get infected. The doctor may suggest they take an antibiotic to prevent them from getting the disease.

Antibiotics can't treat viral meningitis and, in most cases, the infection goes away on its own with time.

Viral meningitis is usually much less severe than other types. Your teen may need to be in the hospital for a few days (if at all).  When they're there, they'll get fluids through an IV to prevent dehydration, as well as painkillers.

Though very rare, fungal meningitis usually affects people with other underlying medical conditions.If your teen has fungal meningitis, they'll get antifungal medications in the hospital that can fight this rare type of infection. They'll also need to get liquids to prevent dehydration and drugs to control pain and fever.