Definition and Overview

Meningitis is a serious condition that causes the lining around the brain and spinal cord to become inflamed. Children, teens, and young adults are most at risk, although the condition can also affect adults, especially those whose immune systems are weak.


The main cause of meningitis is an infection, which can be either viral or bacterial. Since viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis are caused by viruses or bacteria, respectively, the condition is highly contagious and can be easily passed on through close contact, sneezing, and coughing.

Viral meningitis is the more common type of meningitis and is also the less serious. Complications such as high fever and seizures only occur in the most severe cases, which are quite rare.

Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, is less common but is more serious. Unless treated immediately, bacterial meningitis can cause brain damage or even death. Thus, it is important to know the symptoms of meningitis so treatment can be provided right away.

Key Symptoms

The most common symptoms of meningitis include:

  • Stiff neck
  • Pain in the neck that gets worse when trying to touch the chin to the chest
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Seizures
  • Extreme sleepiness or difficulty to stay awake

Among babies, symptoms may also include:

  • A rash
  • Persistent crying
  • Crankiness
  • Lack of appetite
  • Trouble breathing
  • Coughing

Who to See

If you or a family member is showing these symptoms, it is crucial to seek medical attention right away. Your primary care physician can diagnose meningitis and determine whether it is viral or bacterial. Diagnosis is done by examining the patient’s current health, conducting a physical exam, analyzing the medical history, and performing certain procedures, such as a lumbar puncture, which is also called a spinal tap. This is the most important test done on patients suspected of having meningitis since it takes a sample of the fluid from the spine so it can be tested for viruses and bacteria. Other tests performed to support diagnosis include a CT scan, an MRI, and blood tests.

Types of Treatments Available

Treatment for meningitis differs based on its type.

  • Bacterial meningitis – Bacterial cases are treated with antibiotics and a steroid medication called dexamethasone. These need to be administered at the hospital, so confinement is necessary. This also makes it easier for your doctor to monitor your condition and watch for progressive symptoms, such as seizures, hearing loss or signs of brain damage.

  • Viral meningitis – Viral cases can be treated at home, mainly with medications to relieve the pain and bring down the fever. The patient may experience symptoms for about two weeks before the medication completely gets rid of the virus that causes the illness. Patients are also advised to drink plenty of fluids so that the body can flush out the virus faster.

Other treatment procedures are also applied to relieve symptoms that affect the patient in a severe manner. For example, if the patient is having difficulty breathing, an oxygen therapy may be given. To help prevent dehydration, patients are also given fluids through an IV.

In most cases, adult patients experience a full recovery with no need for follow-up care. However, some complications may arise in the case of patients who have other illnesses or medical problems. Such patients are advised to come back to the doctor’s office for a checkup to prevent recurrence or make sure there are no long-term complications.

In the case of children, however, it is important to bring the child back to the doctor after the illness goes away. Due to their young age, they are more vulnerable to long-term effects such as hearing loss. A follow-up visit will help ensure their full recovery.

Prevention of Meningitis

Since meningitis can be life-threatening, especially in severe bacterial cases, it is important to know how it can be prevented. The best way to prevent this disease is to ensure that all children receive the complete vaccinations prescribed for their age. Although meningococcal vaccines are not included in the standard list of immunizations for children, childhood vaccinations protect children from diseases that can lead to meningitis. These vaccines include:

  • Chickenpox

  • MMR (Measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine)

  • Pneumococcal vaccine (PCV or PPSV) – This is an important vaccination because it protects children from the bacteria that is most likely to cause meningitis. Aside from being prescribed for all babies, it is also recommended for people who have cochlear implants to help with their loss of hearing; this is because some studies show that the use of these implants may cause bacterial ear infections that can, in turn, lead to meningitis. The link between ear infections and meningitis make it important that the former be treated right away.

The special meningococcal vaccine, which is prescribed for preventing bacterial meningitis, is only strongly advised for people who are traveling to countries where meningitis outbreaks have been reported and individuals who suffer from immune system deficiencies, regardless of age.

Although it is not included in the list of standard immunizations, you and your family doctor or child’s pediatrician can discuss whether you or your child needs the meningococcal vaccine.

Aside from getting the necessary vaccines, there are also steps to lower your family’s risk of getting meningitis. These include:

  • Avoiding people who have it and places where it has been reported
  • Washing hands often
  • Avoiding wild animals
  • Preventing mosquito and bug bites

  • Ginsberg L. (2004). “Difficult and recurrent meningitis.” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.

  • Thigpen M, Whitney C, Messonnier N. et al. (2011). “Bacterial meningitis in the United States, 1998-2007.” New England Journal of Medicine.
  • Chadwick D. (2005). “Viral meningitis.” British Medical Bulletin.
  • Marji S. (2007). “Bacterial meningitis in children.” RMJ. 2007; 32(2): 109-111.
  • Tacon C, Flower O. (2012). “Diagnosis and management of bacterial meningitis in the paediatric population: A review.” Emergency Medicine International.
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