Last Updated March 2021 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Deepak S. Patel, MD, FAAFP, FACSM


What is meningitis?

Meningitis is swelling of the tissue around your brain and spinal cord. There are two common types of meningitis. Viral meningitis is the most common and least serious. It can make you feel like you have the flu. The treatment for viral meningitis if often only supportive, but it may also require anti-viral medicines. Bacterial meningitis is more serious. It can cause brain damage or death if not treated early. Both types are spread through direct contact with an infected person, especially through sharing food and drink.

Symptoms of meningitis

Symptoms are slightly different for viral and bacterial meningitis.

Viral meningitis symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Low energy
  • Poor appetite
  • Irritability
  • Feeling tired
  • Stiff neck (in adults)

Bacterial meningitis symptoms appear fast. They include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Your eyes are sensitive to light

Most people think it’s the flu. This delays treatment and puts you at greater risk for complications. Complications can occur within a few hours of the symptoms.

Watch for unusual signs of bacterial meningitis with a sick baby. These include:

  • Yellow skin (jaundice)
  • Problems sucking while taking a bottle
  • High-pitched cry
  • Bulge in the soft spot at the top of a newborn’s head

A serious case of untreated bacterial meningitis can cause stroke, hearing loss, permanent brain damage, and death.

What causes meningitis?

Viral meningitis is caused by a group of viruses. This group is common in the late spring to fall. Not everyone who is infected with these viruses will develop meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis is caused by some of the same germs that cause pneumonia and strep throat. These germs also can cause a serious illness called sepsis. Sepsis is your body’s response to serious infection. It can cause your organs to fail, cause damage to your body’s tissue, and even death.

Both types are spread through direct contact with an infected person. This includes sharing food and drink with that person. Viral and bacterial meningitis affect people of all ages. Young babies and young people in close living quarters are more likely to get it. This includes students attending camps and living in college dorms.

How is meningitis diagnosed?

Doctors will take a sample of your child’s blood. Your doctor also may take a sample of fluid from your child’s spine. If it is bacterial meningitis, further lab tests from the same sample will help your doctor determine treatment.

For a less serious case of viral meningitis, doctors will swab your child’s nose and throat. They may also swab your child’s bottom. They may ask for a stool sample. For a serious case of viral meningitis, doctors will take a sample of blood and spinal fluid.

Can meningitis be prevented or avoided?

Bacterial meningitis can be prevented with a vaccine. Children should get the vaccine at 11 years and a booster at 16 years.

To avoid viral meningitis:

  • Do not share food and drinks with others. This includes straws and eating utensils.
  • Avoid touching certain things that can transmit the disease (dirty diapers, dirty tissues, used towels).
  • Avoid hugging, kissing, or shaking hands with someone who is sick.
  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow instead of your hands.
  • Wash your hands with soap, regularly.
  • Clean common objects (doorknobs, toys, strollers, highchairs, phones, computers, TV remote control).
  • Stay home from school or work so you don’t infect others.

Meningitis treatment

Fast response time is important in treating meningitis. If you suspect meningitis, get to a doctor or hospital quickly. Doctors can treat bacterial meningitis early with antibiotics. They also will treat the early symptoms. This includes giving IV fluids. This helps replace what they’ve lost from vomiting or not drinking. Also, they will give over-the-counter pain medicine (two brands: Tylenol, Motrin) for fever and headache. For milder cases of viral meningitis, you may only need rest and fluids. For more serious cases, a hospital stay may be required.

Prescription medicine can treat more serious complications, such as seizures or stroke. Your doctor also may test for hearing loss. He or she may check for brain damage.

Living with meningitis

See your doctor early to reduce serious complications. Fast response is important. Specialists will treat hearing loss, stroke, seizures, or brain damage. They will show you how to live with the long-term issues you may face.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Can my child get the meningitis vaccine earlier than age 11? Is it effective at an earlier age?
  • Is the removal of spinal fluid painful?
  • Is my child at increased risk of meningitis at daycare?
  • Is there a time of year when meningitis germs are at their worst?