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What Is Meningitis?

Meningitis (say: men-un-JYE-tus) is an inflammation (swelling), or irritation, of the meninges, which are the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord.

The central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) is surrounded by cerebrospinal (say: suh-REE-bro-SPY-nul) fluid. This fluid acts to cushion and protect the central nervous system when you move around. Even more protection is given by the meninges (say: muh-NIN-jeez).

What Causes Meningitis?

Most cases of meningitis are caused by bacteria or viruses. Many of the germs that cause meningitis are fairly common and cause other routine illnesses.

Bacterial meningitis is rare, but is usually serious and must be treated right away.

Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis and usually less serious.

Both kinds of meningitis spread like most other common infections do — someone who's infected touches, kisses, or coughs or sneezes on someone who isn't infected.

This is why washing your hands after you go to the bathroom, after you sneeze, and before you eat is so important.

It's also possible to get viral meningitis as a complication of chickenpox, but this is also very rare in healthy kids. These days, many kids are vaccinated with two shots to prevent chickenpox before starting school.

What Are the Symptoms of Meningitis?

Usually, someone with meningitis is very sick. Symptoms may include:

  • a very bad headache that won't go away
  • neck stiffness
  • back stiffness
  • eye pain when exposed to light
  • nausea, or being sick to the stomach
  • vomiting, or throwing up
  • body aches
  • fever
  • feeling very sleepy or unable to fully wake up
  • feeling very confused or out of it

Symptoms of meningitis can come on very quickly or take a couple of days to appear. Anyone who is ill with symptoms of meningitis needs to seek medical care right away.

What Will the Doctor Do?

When someone is ill and may have symptoms of meningitis, a doctor will ask many questions to figure out how long the person has been sick and what might have caused the illness. The doctor will do an exam and if he or she suspects that meningitis might be causing a person's illness, a spinal tap is usually done.

A spinal tap lets the doctor collect some of the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. This is checked under a microscope to look for inflammation or infection. Usually by looking at the spinal fluid in this way, a doctor can tell if someone has meningitis. When the doctor knows what germ is causing the meningitis, they can choose the best medicine to treat the infection. Treatment depends on the type of meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis is very serious and a person will need to be in the hospital during treatment. Strong antibiotic medicine will be given through an IV (a thin tube that goes into a vein to give medicine) to get rid of the bacteria.

Viral meningitis can also be serious, but usually is not as bad as meningitis caused by bacteria. Someone with viral meningitis may still need to be in the hospital for a few days and it may take weeks before he or she is feeling better. Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so a person with viral meningitis will need lots of rest to fight off the infection.

Can Meningitis Be Prevented?

If someone gets bacterial meningitis, doctors will want to know who was in close contact with this person. Close contact means living with or spending a lot of time with the person, or sharing the same utensils or cups. Those people may need antibiotics for a few days, just in case they were infected with the bacteria. The antibiotic may help prevent them from developing meningitis.

If you've had all your vaccinations, they will help protect you from getting meningitis. But there's another way to prevent those germs from getting inside your body: Wash your hands. Wash up regularly with warm, soapy water — especially before eating, after using the bathroom, and whenever your hands are dirty. It's also smart to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Then — you guessed it — wash your hands!

Reviewed by: Marcella A. Escoto, DO
Date Reviewed: 03-12-2018