Meningitis is an infection of the coverings around the brain and spinal cord.
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:
- Viral meningitis is fairly common. It usually does not cause serious illness. In severe cases, it can cause prolonged fever and seizures.
- Bacterial meningitis is not as common but is very serious. It needs to be treated right away to prevent brain damage and death.
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.
Meningitis is contagious. The germs that cause it can be passed from one person to another through coughing and sneezing and through close contact.
The best way to protect your child from meningitis is to make sure he or she gets all the standard immunizations for children. These include shots for measles, chicken pox, Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) disease, and pneumococcal infection. Talk to your doctor about whether you or your child also needs the meningococcal vaccine, which is a shot to prevent bacterial meningitis. It is recommended for:
- Babies, children, and young adults.
- University freshman living in dormitories.
- People who plan to travel to countries known to have meningitis outbreaks.
- People without a spleen.
- People with HIV.
The most common symptoms of meningitis among teens and young adults are:
- A stiff and painful neck, especially when you try to touch your chin to your chest.
- Trouble staying awake.
Children, older adults, and people with other medical problems may have different symptoms:
- Babies may be cranky and refuse to eat. They may have a rash. They may cry when held.
- Young children may act like they have the flu. They may cough or have trouble breathing.
- Older adults and people with other medical problems may have only a slight headache and fever.
The two kinds of meningitis share the same symptoms. It’s very important to see a doctor if you have symptoms, so that he or she can find out which type you have. Bacterial meningitis can be deadly if not treated right away.
Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) is the most important lab test for meningitis. A sample of fluid is removed from the spine and tested to see if it contains organisms that cause the illness. Your doctor may also order other tests, such as blood tests, a CT scan, or an MRI.
Treatment depends on the cause. Bacterial meningitis is treated in a hospital. You or your child will get antibiotics and you will be watched carefully to prevent serious problems such as hearing loss, seizures, or brain damage.
Viral meningitis is more common, and most people with this form of the illness get better in about 2 weeks. With mild cases, you may only need home treatment. Home treatment includes drinking lots of fluids and taking medicine for fever and pain.