What Is Meningitis?

Meningitis is a condition that causes inflammation of the meninges, which are layers of protective tissue that surround your brain and spinal cord. A number of pathogens (or, harmful cells that produce diseases) can cause meningitis, such as bacterial, fungal, or viral infections. An estimated 1.2 million people worldwide experience bacterial meningitis each year.

Meningitis can cause several symptoms including nausea, double vision, neck pain, fever, and fatigue. Symptoms at first may feel like a cold or flu and then gradually worsen to neurological (brain-related) symptoms—such as confusion or seizures. Your treatment options will depend on the type of infection that caused meningitis but typically involve medication. 


You might display one or more of the following set of symptoms. Common symptoms of meningitis include:

  • Infection symptoms: Fever, fatigue, chills, and body aches 
  • Neurological symptoms: Confusion, double vision, dizziness, and seizures 
  • Stomach symptoms: Loss of appetite, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting 
  • Pain symptoms: Neck, muscle, joint, and stomach pain  
  • Skin symptoms: A skin rash that looks like red or purple pinpricks or splotches, typically occurring in a later stage of meningitis  


Bacteria are the most common pathogens that cause meningitis. The infection occurs when immune system cells or leaking blood vessels allow bacteria or other pathogens into your cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). CSF is located in your brain and spinal cord and helps cushion the organs. If bacteria move into the CSF and meninges, you can begin to experience meningitis symptoms.

Examples of bacteria that cause meningitis include:

  • Escherichia coli 
  • Group B streptococcus 
  • Listeria monocytogenes 
  • Neisseria meningitidis 
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae 

While bacterial meningitis is the most common type, other pathogens such as enteroviruses, fungi, mumps, amoeba, parasites—and in some cases, tuberculosis—can also cause meningitis. 

Risk Factors 

Although anyone can get meningitis, some factors can increase your risk of developing the condition:

  • Being under the age of 5
  • Having a weakened immune system or autoimmune disease 
  • Taking medication that suppresses the immune system such as steroids or chemotherapy medicines 


If you are displaying symptoms of meningitis, your healthcare provider is best fit to make an accurate diagnosis. Your diagnostic process may include:

  • Medical history: Asking about your personal and family history
  • Physical exam: Learning about your symptoms and checking for physical signs 
  • Lumbar puncture: Taking a sample of your CSF to check for pathogens 
  • Imaging test: CT scans or MRIs that take photos of your brain and look for signs of inflammation or damage
  • Blood tests: Tests for certain proteins and pathogens that may be present in your blood 

In some cases, your provider may conduct specific physical assessments that check for issues with the central nervous system (e.g., your brain and spinal cord).  These tests include:

  • Brudzinski’s sign: Severe neck stiffness when you tuck your knees into your chest as the neck is flexed
  • Kernig's sign: The hips are flexed to a 90-degree angle, if pain is felt as the knee is extended from there then that is a good sign


Treatments for meningitis depend on how severe your condition is and what caused your meningitis. Your treatment options may include:

  • Antibiotics for bacterial meningitis
  • Antifungal medication for fungal meningitis
  • Antiviral medicine for viral meningitis
  • Pain relievers
  • Steroid medication to reduce swelling 

How to Prevent Meningitis 

The most effective way to protect yourself from meningitis is through vaccination. The meningococcal vaccine is the most common type. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends:

  • Getting the meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY) as a preteenager and a second booster dose at age 16
  • Getting the serogroup B meningococcal vaccine (MenB) between the ages of 16 and 23

Other vaccines can also protect against bacteria that can cause meningitis. Examples include:

  • Haemophilus influenzae serotype B (Hib) 
  • Influenza (flu) vaccines
  • Pneumococcal vaccines

Additional preventative measures include:

  • Avoiding close contact with people who have meningitis or other infection
  • Washing your hands with soap and water regularly, especially after using the toilet, coming in contact with stool, changing diapers, or touching contaminated surfaces 
  • Covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough 

Related Conditions 

Having certain medical conditions can increase your risk of meningitis. These include:

  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak 
  • Splenectomy or spleen removal 
  • HIV infection 
  • Behcet’s disease 
  • Sarcoidosis 
  • Sjogren’s syndrome 
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)

Taking certain medications can also increase your risk of meningitis, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antibiotics, and intravenous immunoglobulins (IVIG). 

Living With Meningitis 

If you have symptoms of meningitis, it’s important to notify your healthcare provider right away. They can help you figure out the exact type of meningitis you have and get you started on the appropriate medication to alleviate symptoms. 

Unfortunately, about 30% of people with meningitis can experience some neurologic complications, such as memory problems, seizures, and hearing loss. However, treatment can help reduce these symptoms. Vaccines to prevent meningitis have helped reduce the overall incidence of meningitis and its complications.

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8 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Viral meningitis

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