What is meningitis?



Meningitis is swelling of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. It can cause you to have a stiff neck, a fever, a headache, vomiting, trouble staying awake, and seizures. It is usually caused by a virus or bacteria.

You can spread the germs that cause meningitis through coughing or close contact. Some types of meningitis can be deadly.

What happens when you have meningitis?

The course of meningitis often depends on your age, general health, and the organism that's causing the infection. The illness can range from mild to severe. Viral meningitis doesn't usually cause severe illness. Bacterial meningitis usually causes serious illness and can cause death.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis most often appear all of a sudden.

Symptoms of viral meningitis may appear all of a sudden or may develop slowly over a period of days.

The most common symptoms of either form of meningitis include:

  • A fever.
  • A severe headache that won't go away.
  • A stiff and painful neck, especially when trying to touch the chin to the chest.
  • Vomiting.
  • Confusion and decreased level of consciousness.
  • Seizures.

Less common symptoms include:

  • Feeling sluggish.
  • Having muscle aches and weakness.
  • Having strange feelings (such as tingling) or weakness throughout the body.
  • Eye sensitivity and eye pain from bright lights.
  • Dark purple and blotchy skin rash.
  • Dizzy spells.

It's very important to see a doctor right away if you or your child has these symptoms. Only a doctor can tell if they are caused by viral or bacterial meningitis. And the bacterial type can be deadly if it's not treated right away.

Babies, young children, older adults, and people with other medical conditions may not have the usual symptoms of meningitis.

  • In babies, the signs of it may be a fever, crankiness that's hard to calm, decreased appetite, a rash, vomiting, and a shrill cry. Babies also may have a stiff body and bulging soft spots on the head that aren't caused by crying. Babies with meningitis may cry when handled.
  • Young children with meningitis may act like they have the flu. Or they may cough or have trouble breathing.
  • Older adults and people with other medical conditions may have only a slight headache and fever. They may not feel well and may have little energy.

How is meningitis treated?

With mild cases of viral meningitis, you may only need home treatment, like drinking extra fluids and taking medicine for pain and fever. Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics in a hospital. You may also get steroid medicine. You'll be watched carefully to prevent serious problems such as hearing loss, seizures, or brain damage.

How can you prevent meningitis in children?

The best way to protect your child from meningitis is to make sure that your child gets all the standard vaccines for children. These include shots for meningitis, measles, chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) disease, and pneumococcal infection. Talk to the doctor about whether your child needs the meningococcal vaccine.

How is meningitis diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions about your health and do an exam. A lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, is usually done to check for meningitis. A sample of fluid is removed from around the spine and tested. Your doctor may do other tests, such as blood tests, a CT scan, or an MRI.

How can you care for yourself when you have viral meningitis?

Get plenty of rest. Stay in bed if you can. Be safe with medicines. Take your medicine as prescribed. If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine. Drink plenty of fluids. Choose water and other clear liquids until you feel better.

How does meningitis spread?

Germs that cause meningitis can be spread in many ways. This includes:

  • During birth. A mother can pass germs that cause meningitis to her baby even if the mother doesn't have symptoms.
  • Through stool. Stool could have enteroviruses or certain types of bacteria in it. Wash your hands often. This can help prevent infection in you and your children.
  • Through coughing and sneezing. Infected people can pass certain bacteria that are normally found in saliva or mucus.
  • Through kissing, sexual contact, or contact with infected blood. Viruses that cause meningitis can be passed from an infected person to another person.
  • From eating certain foods. Eating food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes bacteria can cause meningitis.
  • From rodents and insects. But this is rare.

What increases your risk for meningitis?

Risk factors for meningitis include:

  • Genetics. Some people may inherit the tendency to get meningitis.
  • Crowded living conditions. People in camps, day care centers, schools, and college dormitories are more likely to get it.
  • Having other infections. This includes upper respiratory infections, mumps, tuberculosis (TB), syphilis, Lyme disease, and illnesses caused by herpes viruses.
  • Not getting childhood immunizations. People who didn't get shots for mumps, Hib disease, or pneumococcal infections before age 2 are more likely to get meningitis.
  • Age. Older adults who haven't gotten a pneumococcal vaccine are more likely to get meningitis.
  • Not having a working spleen. The spleen is part of the body's immune system.
  • Travel to areas where the disease is common.

Certain medical problems can also increase your risk for meningitis.

What causes meningitis?

Viral meningitis is caused by viruses. Bacterial meningitis is caused by bacteria. Meningitis can also be caused by other organisms and some medicines, but this is rare. Most forms of meningitis are contagious. The germs that cause it can be passed from one person to another.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. It's usually caused by an infection. The infection occurs most often in children, teens, and young adults. Also at risk are older adults and people who have long-term health problems, such as a weakened immune system.

There are two main kinds of meningitis. They are:

Viral meningitis.

This is fairly common. It usually doesn't cause serious illness. In severe cases, it can cause prolonged fever and seizures.

Bacterial meningitis.

This isn't as common, but it's very serious. It needs to be treated right away to prevent brain damage and death.

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