What is meningitis?

Meningitis is a disease caused by an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that surround the brain. The inflammation is usually caused by infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. 

What causes meningitis?

There are two distinct types of meningitis, each with different causes:

Viral (caused by a virus)

  • Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis, although rarely life threatening. Viral meningitis can be caused by different viruses, and is spread between people by coughing or sneezing, or through poor hygiene. On rare occasions, certain insects, such as mosquitoes and ticks, are thought to pass on these viruses.
  • Viral meningitis can, in rare circumstances, be helped by special antiviral medications that specifically target certain viruses. Recovery is normally complete, but headaches, fatigue, and depression may persist.

Bacterial (caused by a bacterium)

  • Bacterial meningitis, although rare, may be fatal.
  • Bacteria may be spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions, such as from coughing and kissing.
  • Many species of bacteria can cause meningitis. Below are four types: 
  • Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus). Meningococcus is a common cause of bacterial meningitis in children 2 to 18 years of age. It is spread by respiratory droplets and close contact.  Meningococcal meningitis occurs most often in the first year of life, but may also occur in people who lived in close quarters such as a college dorm.
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus). Pneumococcus is the most common and most serious form of bacterial meningitis. People with weak immune systems are most at risk. Haemophilus influenzae type b. The development of the Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccine has drastically decreased the number of cases in the U.S. Children who do not have access to the vaccine and those in day-care centers are at higher risk of acquiring Haemophilus meningitis.
  • Listeria monocytogenes. Listeria monocytogenes has become a more frequent cause of meningitis in neonates, pregnant women, people over the age of 60, and in people of all ages who have a weak immune symptom.


Rarely, meningitis can be caused by a fungus or tuberculosis.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

The following are the most common symptoms of meningitis. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Sensitivity to bright light)
  • Confusion
  • Joint aches or pains
  • Drowsiness
  • Seizures

Symptoms for children may also include:

  • Fever
  • High-pitched cry
  • Pale, blotchy skin color
  • Not wanting to eat
  • Vomiting
  • Fretful and fussy
  • Arching back
  • Difficult to wake

It is important to note that these symptoms may not occur all at once, nor in everyone who contracts meningitis. The symptoms of meningitis may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is meningitis diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, diagnostic procedures for meningitis may include the following:

  • Lumbar puncture (also called spinal tap). A needle is inserted into the lower back, into the spinal canal. This is the area around the spinal cord. The pressure in the spinal canal and brain can then be measured. A small amount of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) can be removed and sent for testing to determine if there is an infection or other problems. CSF is the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord. 
  • Blood testing. Blood is collected and tested for infection.
  • Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan). This is a diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.


How is meningitis treated?

Specific treatment for meningitis will be determined by your health care provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • The organism that is causing the infection
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Bacterial meningitis. Treatment for bacterial meningitis usually involves intravenous (IV) antibiotics. The earlier the treatment is started, the better the outcome. While steroid s have been shown to be helpful in treating bacterial meningitis in infants and children, this treatment is used less frequently in adults. Dexamethasone, a type of steroid, may be given in more acute cases of bacterial meningitis, to decrease the inflammatory response caused by the bacteria.
  • Viral meningitis. Treatment for viral meningitis is usually aimed at relieving symptoms. With the exception of the herpes simplex virus, there are no specific medications to treat the organisms that cause viral meningitis. Sometimes antiviral medications are used to treat some other specific types of viruses.

While recovering from meningitis, other therapies may be used to improve healing and comfort, and provide relief from symptoms. These may include the following:

  • Bed rest in a dimly lit room
  • Medications to reduce fever and headache. Aspirin should be avoided.

In addition, supplemental oxygen or mechanical ventilation (respirator) may be required if you become very ill and have difficulty breathing.

Can meningitis be prevented?

Several vaccines are currently available to prevent types of bacterial meningitis. These vaccines are recommended for infants and children. Two doses at ages 11 through 18 are also recommended. 

In certain conditions, your health care provider may recommend one of the meningitis vaccines. You may need a meningitis vaccine if you have:

  • Chronic lung conditions, such as emphysema or COPD
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic kidney failure
  • Travel to countries where meningitis is prevalent
  • Decreased immunity status
  • Certain blood disorders

If you have questions regarding prevention, consult your health care provider.

Key points

  • Meningitis is a disease caused by an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that surround the brain.
  • The most common cause of meningitis is viral, although it can be caused by bacteria, a fungus, or tuberculosis.
  • Treatment for meningitis depends on the specific cause of the disease.
  • Vaccinations can prevent or minimize the incidence of meningitis.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

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