What is the definition of Meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. This covering is called the meninges.

What are the alternative names for Meningitis?

Meningitis - bacterial; Meningitis - viral; Meningitis - fungal; Meningitis - vaccine

What are the causes for Meningitis?

The most common causes of meningitis are viral infections. These infections usually get better without treatment. But, bacterial meningitis infections are very serious. They may result in death or brain damage, even if treated.

Meningitis may also be caused by:

  • Chemical irritation
  • Drug allergies
  • Fungi
  • Parasites
  • Tumors

Many types of viruses can cause meningitis:

  • Enteroviruses: These are viruses that also can cause intestinal illness.
  • Herpes viruses: These are the same viruses that can cause cold sores and genital herpes. However, people with cold sores or genital herpes do not have a higher chance of developing herpes meningitis.
  • Mumps and HIV viruses.
  • West Nile virus: This virus is spread by mosquito bites and is an important cause of viral meningitis in most of the United States.

What are the symptoms for Meningitis?

Enteroviral meningitis occurs more often than bacterial meningitis and is milder. It usually occurs in the late summer and early fall. It most often affects children and adults under age 30. Symptoms may include:

  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • Slight fever
  • Upset stomach and diarrhea 
  • Fatigue

Bacterial meningitis is an emergency. You will need immediate treatment in a hospital. Symptoms usually come on quickly, and may include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Mental status changes
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck

Other symptoms that can occur with this disease:

  • Agitation
  • Bulging fontanelles in babies
  • Decreased alertness
  • Poor feeding or irritability in children
  • Rapid breathing
  • Unusual posture, with the head and neck arched backward (opisthotonos)

You cannot tell if you have bacterial or viral meningitis by how you feel. Your health care provider must find out the cause. Go to the hospital emergency department right away if you think you have symptoms of meningitis.

What are the current treatments for Meningitis?

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial meningitis. Antibiotics do not treat viral meningitis. But antiviral medicine may be given to those with herpes meningitis.

Other treatments will include:

  • Fluids through a vein (IV)
  • Medicines to treat symptoms, such as brain swelling, shock, and seizures

What is the outlook (prognosis) for Meningitis?

Early diagnosis and treatment of bacterial meningitis is essential to prevent permanent neurological damage. Viral meningitis is usually not serious, and symptoms should disappear within 2 weeks with no lasting complications.

What are the possible complications for Meningitis?

Without prompt treatment, meningitis may result in the following:

  • Brain damage
  • Buildup of fluid between the skull and brain (subdural effusion)
  • Hearing loss
  • Buildup of fluid inside the skull that leads to brain swelling (hydrocephalus)
  • Seizures
  • Death

When should I contact a medical professional for Meningitis?

If you think that you or your child has symptoms of meningitis, get emergency medical help immediately. Early treatment is key to a good outcome.

How do I prevent Meningitis?

Certain vaccines can help prevent some types of bacterial meningitis:

  • Haemophilus vaccine (HiB vaccine) given to children helps
  • Pneumococcal vaccine is given to children and adults
  • Meningococcal vaccine is given to children and adults; some communities hold vaccination campaigns after an outbreak of meningococcal meningitis.

Household members and others in close contact with people who have meningococcal meningitis should receive antibiotics to prevent becoming infected.

Brudzinski's sign of meningitis
Kernig's sign of meningitis
Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
Meninges of the brain
Meninges of the spine
Haemophilus influenza organism

REFERENCES

Hasbun R, Van de Beek D, Brouwer MC, Tunkel AR. Acute meningitis. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 87.

Nath A. Meningitis: bacterial, viral, and other. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 384.