What is bacterial meningitis?
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 Viral Meningitis 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 viral meningitis, the infection is caused by a... read more ) 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
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.
Tissues Covering the Brain
Within the skull, the brain is covered by three layers of tissue called the meninges.
What causes bacterial meningitis?
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:
Someone else who has an infection
From an infection you already have, for example, an ear infection Ear Infection (Acute Otitis Media) Your middle ear is a hollow space behind your eardrum. The middle ear contains 3 tiny bones that send your eardrum's vibrations to the nerves in your inner ear. Different parts of your ear can... read more or sinus infection Sinusitis Sinusitis is inflammation of the sinuses, most commonly caused by a viral or bacterial infection or by an allergy. Some of the most common symptoms of sinusitis are pain, tenderness, nasal congestion... read more
Different kinds of bacteria can cause meningitis. Which bacteria you have depends on your age, how strong your immune system Overview of the Immune System The immune system is your body's defense system. It helps protect you from illness and infection. The immune system's job is to attack things that don’t belong in your body, including: Germs... read more is, and how you got the infection.
What raises my risk of getting bacterial meningitis?
Bacterial meningitis isn't common but you're more likely to get it if you:
Had contact with someone with meningitis
Haven't had all your shots (vaccines)
You also are at higher risk if you:
Have a weakened immune system
Recently had surgery on your brain or spinal cord
Have a birth defect of your skull or spine
What are the symptoms of bacterial meningitis?
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.
Symptoms of meningitis in infants and babies
At first, babies may just have a fever and not appear very sick. However, babies may quickly develop other signs, such as:
Refusing to eat
Being strangely cranky or sleepy
Unlike older children, babies under 2 usually don't have a stiff neck.
Symptoms of meningitis in older children and adults
Older children and adults usually start with mild symptoms similar to a cold or other viral infection. Soon after that they get:
Sometimes a rash of tiny purple spots or patches
As meningitis gets worse, older children and adults may:
Become confused or less alert
Go into a coma
What are the complications of bacterial meningitis?
Children who survive bacterial meningitis sometimes have permanent brain and nerve complications such as:
How can doctors tell if I have bacterial meningitis?
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:
In a spinal tap, doctors put a long, thin needle in your lower back. They take out a little spinal fluid for testing. Before doing the spinal tap, doctors sometimes do an MRI Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) MRI is a test that uses a machine with a powerful magnet to make pictures of the inside of your body. A computer records changes in the magnetic field around your body. The computer then uses... read more or CT scan Computed Tomography A CT scan uses a large machine shaped like a large donut to take x-rays from many angles. A computer then takes the x-rays and creates many detailed pictures of the inside of your body. Each... read more .
How a Spinal Tap Is Done
Spinal fluid flows through a channel between the middle and inner layer of tissues (meninges) that cover the brain and spinal cord. To remove a sample of this fluid, a doctor inserts a small, hollow needle between two bones (vertebrae) in the lower spine, below the point where the spinal cord ends. Usually, people lie on their side with their knees curled to their chest. This position widens the space between the vertebrae, so that the doctor can avoid hitting the bones when the needle is inserted.
Doctors collect spinal fluid in test tubes and send it to a lab for testing.
How do doctors treat bacterial meningitis?
If doctors even suspect bacterial meningitis, they'll give you:
One or more antibiotics by vein (IV)
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.
How can I prevent acute bacterial meningitis?
Two important measures are:
Vaccines Meningococcal Vaccine The meningococcal vaccine protects against infections caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis (meningococci). Meningococcal infections can lead to meningitis (an infection of tissue... read more are available to prevent some types of bacterial meningitis. Some of the vaccines are recommended for everyone and are included in routine childhood shots Childhood Vaccinations Vaccines are a way of getting your body ready to fight off certain infections. They don't fight infections after you're sick, like medicines do. Instead, vaccines help you avoid getting sick... read more . Other vaccines are just for people at high risk:
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.