Meningitis is inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meninges) that is caused by an infection. The main symptoms of meningitis include headache, fever, and stiff neck, which can often be confused with the flu (influenza). Meningitis is typically caused by a viral infection. However, bacterial infections, fungal infections, chemical reactions, drug allergies, some types of cancer, and inflammatory diseases can also cause meningitis. The severity, outcome and, treatment plan depend on the cause of the infection. Viral meningitis is usually caused by a group of viruses known as enteroviruses, and it is contracted mostly during the late summer and early fall. Bacterial meningitis can be caused by any number of bacteria, but the most common include pneumococcus, meningococcus, haemophilus, and listeria.
In addition to headache, fever, and stiff neck, additional symptoms can include vomiting, trouble sleeping or staying awake, sensitivity to light and seizures. Risk factors for meningitis include living in crowded conditions, not receiving immunizations, being pregnant, and having a weak immune system. Meningitis is usually diagnosed through a variety of tests, including blood cultures (to see if bacteria is present in your blood), and imaging of the head (using x-rays and CT scans) to look for swelling or inflammation. Most cases of meningitis can be diagnosed by removing a small amount of spinal fluid (spinal tap or lumbar puncture) to look for evidence of an infection or inflammation. Treatment depends on the cause of the meningitis. Bacterial meningitis calls for immediate treatment with antibiotics to get rid of the infection and steroids to reduce the inflammation. Most cases of viral meningitis improve without treatment. Fungal meningitis is treated with antifungal medications. If you or someone you know have signs or symptoms of meningitis, talk to your physician immediately.