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What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an irritation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can be caused by different types of infection, but can also be caused by other things.

What causes meningitis?

Meningitis may develop in response to a number of causes. It can be caused by physical injury, cancer, certain medical problems, some medications, or different types of infections. The severity of the disease and the treatment depend on the cause of infection.
  • Non–infectious meningitis can be caused by cancers, head injury, brain surgery, and other medical problems. Certain drugs can also cause meningitis. 
  • Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis caused by an infection.  Most people get better with supportive treatment. Infants younger than 1 month old and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to have severe illness. 
  • Bacterial meningitis can be very serious. It can lead to long term medical problems such as hearing loss or learning disabilities. In the United States, bacterial meningitis is usually caused by:
    • Haemophilus influenzae (Hib)
    • Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus)
    • Group B Streptococcus
    • Listeria monocytogenes or
    • Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus)

Vaccines are available to protect against Hib, pneumoccus, and meningococcus. Talk to your health care provider to find out if you or your family should get vaccinated.

  • Fungal meningitis is rare. It is usually the result of spread of a fungus through blood to the spinal cord. Although anyone can get fungal meningitis, people with weakened immune systems, like those with HIV infection or cancer, are at higher risk. The most common cause of fungal meningitis for people with weakened immune systems is Cryptococcus. 

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

Symptoms of meningitis may appear suddenly. Fever, severe and persistent headache, stiff neck or neck pain, nausea and vomiting, and rash can all be signs of meningitis. Changes in behavior such as confusion, sleepiness, and being hard to wake up can also be important symptoms. Some infants may not have the same symptoms as adults. In some cases, the only signs of meningitis an infant may have are crankiness or tiredness and lack of appetite. Babies with meningitis usually run a fever, but there are exceptions. Anyone who has these symptoms should contact a health care provider right away.

Can meningitis be treated?

Yes, most cases of meningitis can be treated. The treatment depends on the cause of the infection. For some types of meningitis, only supportive treatments for the symptoms are needed. Medicine such as antibiotics or anti-fungal medication may be needed for the more serious types of meningitis. Your health care provider will decide which treatment is best for you.

How is meningitis caused by an infection spread?

It depends on the particular germ that is causing the illness. Meningitis caused by meningogoccus can be spread through droplets of saliva from the infected person. People who have been in close contact with a person who has meningococcal meningitis may need preventive antibiotic treatment. Talk to your health care provider if you think you have been exposed.

How can meningitis be prevented?

There are vaccines that can prevent meningitis caused by pneumococcus, meningococcus, and Hib. Check with your healthcare provider to see if you should get these vaccines. In cases of meningitis caused by meningococcus, close contacts to the case may be started in preventive antibiotics.  Frequent hand washing with soap and water is also recommended. Hand washing can help prevent the spread of meningitis and other infections. Not sharing food, drinks, or eating utensils with other people can also help stop the spread of germs.

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