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Meningitis is a severe health issue where swelling occurs in the tissue around the brain and spinal cord. Most often, people with meningitis have a rare infection from bacteria or a virus.

Symptoms include a fever, headache, and stiff neck, and people often report that light hurts their eyes.

How we treat meningitis depends on what infection causes it.

If you think you have meningitis, it's crucial to seek care right away at the closest emergency department.

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What Is Meningitis?

Doctors define meningitis as swelling of the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord. Swelling occurs when the immune system tries to fight an infection.

Meningitis is a dangerous, even deadly, disease that requires emergency treatment.

The most common cause of meningitis is an infection from either a virus or bacteria.

What are the types of meningitis?

The two most common types of meningitis are viral and bacterial.

Of these two, viral meningitis is more common but less dangerous. Bacterial meningitis is less common since we have vaccines that can decrease the risk of infection.

This includes vaccines for:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae.
  • Haemophilus influenzae b.
  • Neisseria meningitidis.

People who are pregnant or immunocompromised may be at risk for some rare causes of meningitis.

Other types of meningitis — fungal, parasitic, and amebic — are very rare. Less than 200 cases from an amoeba — a single-celled creature — have occurred in the U.S. in the past 60 years.

What causes viral meningitis?

Infections from a group of viruses called enteroviruses cause most viral meningitis cases. About 75,000 cases of meningitis from enterovirus infections occur in the U.S. each year.

Other viruses that can cause meningitis include:

  • Flu.
  • Herpes viruses.
  • Lymphocytic choriomeningitis (which house mice carry).
  • Measles.
  • Mumps.
  • Varicella (the virus that causes chicken pox and shingles).
  • West Nile virus.

What causes bacterial meningitis?

Streptococcus pneumoniae is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis. It can also cause respiratory tract infections.

Other forms of bacteria that cause meningitis include:

  • Group B streptococcus can pass from a pregnant person to their baby during birth.
  • H. influenzae b (Hib) caused meningitis in children in the past. It's no longer common because a vaccine can prevent it.
  • Listeria monocytogenes comes from contaminated food and can sometimes cause GI tract illness. Most serious infections are in people who are pregnant, very young, elderly, or immunocompromised.
  • Neisseria meningitidis causes meningococcal disease. Not everyone who gets this disease will get meningitis. But it can cause a severe, even fatal, infection in the brain, spine, and blood. Meningitis outbreaks from this bacteria tend to occur in teenagers and younger adults.

What are meningitis risk factors and complications?

Bacterial meningitis risk factors

Babies have the highest risk of getting bacterial meningitis.

But it can affect people of any age, especially those who:

  • Don't have a spleen.
  • Have traveled to Sub-Saharan Africa or to Mecca during the yearly pilgrimage.
  • Live in large groups like college dorms or military barracks.
  • Have a weakened immune system from a certain disease or medicine.
  • Have HIV.

Viral meningitis risk factors

People under age five have a higher risk of viral meningitis, but all people are at risk if they:

  • Are getting chemo.
  • Have had an organ or bone marrow transplant.
  • Have a weakened immune system from a certain disease or medicine.

Complications of bacterial and viral meningitis

Those with bacterial meningitis must receive treatment right away to avoid severe complications, such as:

  • Brain damage.
  • Hearing loss.
  • Learning disabilities.
  • Sepsis (which can damage organs and tissues and cause death).

People with viral meningitis often get better on their own after about a week.

How can I prevent meningitis?

You can prevent both bacterial and viral meningitis by receiving vaccines.

The CDC suggests that:

  • Babies get the Hib and pneumococcal vaccines.
  • Preteens get the meningococcal vaccine called MenACWY. Older teens may also get the meningitis B vaccine called MenB.
  • Adults with certain health issues get all vaccines that protect them against meningitis.

See all of the CDC's meningitis vaccine guidelines.

If you've been in close contact with someone with meningitis, you may need antibiotics to reduce your risk of infection.

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What Are the Symptoms of Bacterial and Viral Meningitis?

If you think you or someone you know has meningitis, seek care right away. If a person with bacterial meningitis doesn't get treatment, they can die.

Symptoms of bacterial and viral meningitis include a sudden fever, headache, sensitivity to light, and a stiff neck without a cause.

You might also vomit and have mental confusion.

In babies, meningitis symptoms include:

  • Being very irritable.
  • Fever.
  • Having a bulge in the soft spot of their head.
  • Moving slowly.
  • Not being very active.
  • Not eating well.
  • Vomiting.

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How Do You Diagnose Meningitis?

If your doctor thinks you have bacterial meningitis, they'll collect blood or fluid near the spinal cord for testing.

Doctors also diagnose viral meningitis with lab tests. These tests might include taking samples from your nose or throat or of blood, spinal fluid, or stool.

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How Do You Treat Meningitis?

We treat bacterial meningitis with antibiotics. Treatment must start right away to prevent severe issues or death.

For viral meningitis, treatment is often rest and fluids. A few causes of viral meningitis — like herpes simplex virus or influenza — have their own specific treatments.

Can a person with meningitis survive?

Most people with viral meningitis get better on their own and don't have long-term health problems.

Bacterial meningitis is much more dire. About one in five people with bacterial meningitis have severe complications, and one in six die. 

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