Meningitis is an infection of the thin layer of tissue that covers your brain and spinal cord. This layer of tissue is called the meninges. In bacterial meningitis, infection of the meninges is caused by bacteria. Without treatment, meningitis can damage your brain and cause death. That's why bacterial meningitis is an emergency. Meningitis caused by viruses (viral meningitis) isn't usually as dangerous.
Older children and adults with meningitis usually have a fever, headache, and stiff neck
Babies and children under 2 usually have a fever and appear irritable but may not have a stiff neck
As meningitis gets worse, people get sleepy and confused and then go into a coma
To diagnose meningitis, doctors do a spinal tap
Doctors treat bacterial meningitis with antibiotics as soon as possible
Vaccines can prevent some types of meningitis
Bacterial meningitis is dangerous and can cause serious complications if it isn't treated. If you think you or someone else might have meningitis, go to the hospital right away.
Bacterial meningitis happens when bacteria get into the fluid between your brain and the thin layer of tissue covering your brain. You may get the bacteria from:
Different kinds of bacteria can cause meningitis. Which bacteria you have depends on your age, how strong your immune system is, and how you got the infection.
Bacterial meningitis isn't common but you're more likely to get it if you:
You also are at higher risk if you:
Symptoms are different depending on the person's age. At any age, symptoms can get worse quickly. So if you think someone has symptoms of meningitis, take them to a doctor right away.
At first, babies may just have a fever and not appear very sick. However, babies may quickly develop other signs, such as:
Unlike older children, babies under 2 usually don't have a stiff neck.
Older children and adults usually start with mild symptoms similar to a cold or other viral infection. Soon after that they get:
As meningitis gets worse, older children and adults may:
Children who survive bacterial meningitis sometimes have permanent brain and nerve complications such as:
Increased amount of fluid in the brain (hydrocephalus)
Doctors do tests to look for bacteria in the fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord (spinal fluid). To get the spinal fluid, doctors do a:
Spinal tap (lumbar puncture)
How a Spinal Tap Is Done
If doctors even suspect bacterial meningitis, they'll give you:
Because bacterial meningitis can get worse so fast, they'll give you the antibiotics as soon as possible, sometimes even before they finish doing tests. Because bacterial meningitis may cause many serious problems, you'll need to stay in the hospital, perhaps in the intensive care unit (ICU).
In addition to antibiotics, doctors may give you corticosteroids. Corticosteroids can help prevent complications by lessening the inflammation and swelling in your brain and nerves.
Most people recover completely from bacterial meningitis if they get treated right away. Waiting too long for treatment can be dangerous or even deadly.
Two important measures are:
Vaccines are available to prevent some types of bacterial meningitis. Some of the vaccines are recommended for everyone and are included in routine childhood shots. Other vaccines are just for people at high risk:
Children ages 2 to 10 with a weak immune system
Students living in dorms
People who are traveling to areas where meningitis is common
People whose jobs put them at risk, such as workers in a medical lab
Ask your doctor about which vaccines you and your children should have.
If you've been in close contact with someone who has meningitis, doctors will give you antibiotics to lower your chance of getting it.