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Recurrent Meningitis


John E. Greenlee

, MD, University of Utah School of Medicine

Last full review/revision Dec 2020| Content last modified Dec 2020
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Recurrent meningitis is meningitis that occurs more than once. Meningitis is inflammation of the layers of tissue that cover the brain and spinal cord (meninges) and of the fluid-filled space between the meninges (subarachnoid space).

Occasionally, people have two or more episodes of meningitis. Recurrent meningitis may be caused by bacteria, viruses, or other conditions.


Bacterial meningitis may recur when an unrepaired injury or birth defect allows bacteria to enter the space between the layers of tissue (meninges) that cover the brain and spinal cord. The defect may be in the

  • Base of the skull, allowing bacteria from the sinuses, middle ear, or bone behind the ear (mastoid process) to enter

  • The meninges or spinal cord (called a neural tube defect), usually in the neck or lower back

The only symptom of a defect in the spinal cord may be a dimple or a tuft of hair on the skin over the spine.

Meningitis due to an injury or a birth defect may take months or years to develop.

Rarely, recurrent bacterial meningitis results from a hereditary (congenital) disorder that affects part of the immune system called the complement system. In such cases, the bacteria most likely to be the cause are Streptococcus pneumoniae or Neisseria meningitidis. Vaccines can help protect against these infections. The pneumococcal vaccine is used to prevent those caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae, and the meningococcal vaccine is used to prevent those caused by Neisseria meningitidis.

If bacterial meningitis recurs, doctors do a physical examination and sometimes take x-rays or do computed tomography (CT) to check for defects in the skull base and spinal column. They may also do blood tests to check for hereditary disorders of the immune system.

Recurrent bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics and dexamethasone (a corticosteroid).


Recurrent viral meningitis is most often caused by

  • Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2)

This type of recurrent meningitis is called Mollaret meningitis. Typically, people have three or more episodes of fever, headache, and a stiff neck. The episodes usually last 2 to 5 days, then resolve on their own. People may appear drowsy or sluggish. Some have seizures, vision problems, or hearing loss.

Mollaret meningitis is treated with the antiviral drug acyclovir. Most people recover fully.

Other causes

Recurrent meningitis may also be caused by conditions that are not infections (see table Some Causes of Noninfectious Meningitis), such as use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or another drug. If one episode of meningitis was caused by a drug, meningitis may recur if people take the drug again.

Meningitis caused by rupture of a brain cyst may also recur. These cysts are diagnosed by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain and/or spinal cord or, if MRI is unavailable, computed tomography (CT).

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