What is meningitis?

Meningitis occurs when the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, called the meninges, become inflamed. This disease can be fatal or cause serious lasting side effects.

What are the causes of meningitis?

The two main causes of meningitis are bacteria and viruses. Common bacteria or viruses may cause infection in a part of the body -- the skin, gastrointestinal tract, or respiratory tract, for instance. They then may spread through the bloodstream to the nervous system. Bacteria can also enter the nervous system directly after severe head trauma or head surgery, or following an infection in the head.

In very rare cases, cancer, other diseases, or certain medications may also lead to inflammation of the meninges.

What is bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis is very rare, but is serious, occurring most often in winter months. The most common type affecting teenagers is meningococcal disease. It can be fatal if you don't receive treatment right away. The bacteria that cause it live in the noses and throats of up to a quarter of the population. It is not known why these bacteria sometimes travel to the nervous system and cause meningitis.

What is viral meningitis?

Viral meningitis is more common and usually less serious. It tends to occur more often in the summer and autumn. Because of its flu-like symptoms, many people mistake it for the flu. Others viruses that lead to meningitis are those that cause chickenpox, HIV, and genital herpes.

What are the signs and symptoms of meningitis?

Although symptoms may vary, the more common signs and symptoms of meningitis include:

  • A sudden high temperature
  • Severe, persistent headaches
  • Neck stiffness
  • Vomiting
  • Discomfort in bright lights
  • Drowsiness
  • Joint pain

A reddish or purple skin rash is a very important sign to watch for. If it does not turn white when you press a glass against it, the rash may be a sign of blood poisoning and this is a medical emergency.

What should I do if someone I know has symptoms of meningitis?

Call the doctor and describe the signs and symptoms. If you cannot reach a doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department right away.

Who is at risk of developing meningitis?

A person of any age may develop bacterial meningitis but it is more common in infants and young children, and in people older than 60. Because of close contact with peers, teenagers and university students are at greater risk, too. Having a weakened immune system also increases your risk of meningitis.

Is meningitis contagious?

Close contact - not casual contact at work or school - can spread the bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis. This includes kissing, coughing, laughing, or sneezing. Sharing eating utensils, glasses, food, or towels can also spread these bacteria and viruses.

How do doctors diagnose meningitis?

In addition to taking a history and doing a physical exam, the doctor will often collect a sample of spinal fluid, called a lumbar puncture or spinal tap. The doctor inserts a needle into the lower back to remove the fluid. The doctor examines this sample for signs of inflammation and to help identify the organism causing the infection. Other tests may include:

  • A neurological examination
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Throat cultures to check for viruses or bacteria
  • Computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or electroencephalography (EEG) scans to spot specific problems in the brain

How do doctors treat meningitis?

Depending upon the severity of illness, you may need to be admitted to the hospital. Bacterial infections require prompt treatment with antibiotics, which may be given by IV (intravenously). This may begin even before diagnosis is confirmed. Treatment for viral infections is mainly aimed at relieving symptoms. Treatment may also include intravenous fluids, anticonvulsants for any seizures or fits, corticosteroids to reduce inflammation or swelling and painkillers.

What are the long-term effects of meningitis?

This depends on the cause of the infection, how quickly treatment begins, and how ill the person becomes. Possible long-term side effects include;

  • Fatigue
  • Recurring headaches
  • Memory or concentration problems
  • Mood swings or aggression
  • Balance problems or clumsiness
  • Temporary or permanent deafness
  • Loss of vision, seizures, or brain damage (rare)
  • Loss of limbs (rare)

Is it possible to prevent meningitis?

Vaccines are available to prevent bacterial meningitis. If you want to be vaccinated or learn more about it, discuss this with your doctor.