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What Is Meningitis?

Meningitis is inflammation of membranes around the brain and spinal cord called the meninges (pronounced: meh-NIN-jeez). Some types of meningitis (pronounced: meh-nen-JYE-tis) can be dangerous and even life-threatening.

What Causes Meningitis?

Meningitis is most often caused by a virus (viral meningitis), but sometimes is caused by bacteria (bacterial meningitis). Rarely it can be due to other infections, some medicines, or illnesses (like cancer).

Meningitis caused by germs like bacteria or viruses often starts in another part of the body. The germs then spread through the bloodstream to the meninges.

Both kinds of meningitis spread to other people like most other common infections do — someone who's infected touches, kisses, or coughs or sneezes on someone who isn't infected. And both kinds are more common in people with weak immune systems.

Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is rare, but is usually serious and can be life-threatening if not treated right away.

People of any age can get bacterial meningitis, but it spreads easily among those living in close quarters, so teens, college students, and boarding-school students are at higher risk for infection.

Viral Meningitis

Viral meningitis (also called aseptic meningitis) is more common than bacterial meningitis and usually less serious. Many of the viruses that cause meningitis are common, such as those that cause colds, diarrhea, cold sores, and the flu.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Meningitis?

Meningitis symptoms vary, depending on the person's age and the cause of the infection. The first symptoms can come on quickly or start several days after someone has had a cold, diarrhea, vomiting, or other signs of an infection.

Common symptoms include:

  • fever
  • lack of energy
  • irritability
  • headache
  • sensitivity to light
  • stiff neck

How Is Meningitis Diagnosed?

Bacterial meningitis can be very serious. So if you see symptoms or think you could have meningitis, it's important to see the doctor right away.

If the doctor thinks it might be meningitis, they'll likely order a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to collect a sample of spinal fluid. This test will show any signs of inflammation and whether the infection is due to a virus or bacteria. The doctor will also order blood tests and other tests to try to find the source of the infection.

How Is Meningitis Treated?

Most cases of viral meningitis end within 7 to 10 days. Some people might need to be treated in the hospital, although most teens can recover at home if they're not too ill. Treatment to ease symptoms includes rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain medicine.

If someone has — or might have — bacterial meningitis, doctors will start intravenous (IV) antibiotics as soon as possible. Fluids may be given to replace those lost to fever, sweating, vomiting, and poor appetite.

What Problems Can Happen?

Bacterial meningitis can cause problems that might need extra treatment. Someone with low blood pressure might get more IV fluids and medicines to increase blood pressure. Some may need extra oxygen or mechanical ventilation if they have trouble breathing.

Problems from bacterial meningitis can be severe and include neurological problems, such as hearing loss, visual impairment, seizures, and learning disabilities. Anyone who's had bacterial meningitis should get a hearing test after they recover.

The heart, kidneys, and adrenal glands also might be affected, depending on the cause of the infection. Although some people develop long-lasting neurological problems, most who get a quick diagnosis and treatment recover fully.

Can Meningitis Be Prevented?


Routine immunization can go a long way toward preventing meningitis. The Hib, measles, mumps, polio, and pneumococcal vaccines can protect against meningitis caused by those germs.

Although bacterial meningitis can seem scary, the chance of getting it is quite low. But because it can be so serious, doctors now recommend that all teens get vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis. Many colleges require their students to get meningitis vaccines.

Avoiding Germs

Wash your hands well and often, especially before eating and after using the bathroom, and if you work closely with kids (as in a daycare). Avoid close contact with someone who's obviously ill and don't share food, drinks, or eating utensils.

In some cases, doctors may give antibiotics to anyone who's been around a person who has bacterial meningitis to help prevent infection.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Get medical care right away if you think that you could have meningitis or you have symptoms such as vomiting, headache, tiredness or confusion, neck stiffness, rash, and fever.

If you've been near someone who has meningitis, call your doctor to ask whether preventive medicine is recommended.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date Reviewed: Mar 10, 2023

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