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Bacterial Meningitis

What is bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the membranes (meninges) that protect the spinal cord and brain. When the membranes become infected, they swell and press on the spinal cord or brain. This can cause life-threatening problems. Meningitis symptoms strike suddenly and worsen quickly.

What causes bacterial meningitis?

Bacteria or a virus can cause meningitis. Viral meningitis is more common, but bacterial meningitis is more serious. It can lead to brain damage, paralysis, or stroke. In some cases, it can be fatal.

Many different types of bacteria can cause meningitis. Vaccines are available that target many of these bacteria. For this reason, it's important to know what's causing meningitis. Even though all types affect the same area of the body, they can have different outcomes and need different treatments.

What are the risk factors for bacterial meningitis?

Experts don't always know why meningitis happens. Some people get it when their immune system is weak or they've recently been sick. A head injury may also increase risk.

Bacterial meningitis is more common in infants under 1 year of age and people ages 16 to 21. College students living in dorms or other close quarters are at increased risk. Also at risk are adults with certain medical problems, including those without a spleen.

What are the symptoms of bacterial meningitis?

The most common symptoms of bacterial meningitis are:

  • Painful, stiff neck with limited range of motion
  • Headaches
  • High fever
  • Feeling confused or sleepy
  • Bruising easily all over the body
  • A rash on the skin
  • Sensitivity to light

These are symptoms to look for in children:

  • Irritability
  • Vomiting from a high fever
  • Frequent crying
  • Swelling of the head
  • Lack of appetite
  • Seizures (sometimes also seen in adults if the meningitis is advanced)

Symptoms typically come on quickly, in as little as a couple of hours or up to a day or two. If you think you or your child may have meningitis, go to an emergency room right away.

How is bacterial meningitis diagnosed?

To diagnose this condition, a healthcare provider will do a spinal tap (also called a lumbar puncture) to take a sample of fluid from around the spinal cord. The fluid is then tested for bacteria. The healthcare provider will also ask about your symptoms and do a physical exam.

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Other tests may include:

  • Brain imaging (CT scan)
  • Blood and urine testing
  • Swab of fluids from your nose or throat

How is bacterial meningitis treated?

Prompt treatment of bacterial meningitis is crucial. It can save your life. Once the type of bacteria has been identified, you'll start taking antibiotics.

Antibiotics are given through a needle placed into a vein (usually in the arm or hand). They may also be given along with a corticosteroid to help reduce inflammation and swelling. Treatment also includes plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

What are the complications of bacterial meningitis?

With quick treatment, many people with bacterial meningitis don’t have any permanent problems. However, even with prompt treatment, some may battle seizures, brain damage, hearing loss, and disability for the rest of their lives. Meningitis can be fatal and some people with this infection will die.

Can bacterial meningitis be prevented?

Vaccines are available to help prevent bacterial meningitis. Children now routinely get a meningitis vaccine around ages 11 to 12. A booster shot is given at age 16. Ask your healthcare provider if you or your children should be vaccinated.

Bacterial meningitis is contagious. If you’ve been around someone who has it, call your healthcare provider to talk about how to keep from getting sick.

Key points about bacterial meningitis

  • If you feel like you've got the flu with unusual stiffness in your neck, it could be meningitis.
  • Get any symptoms checked out and treated as soon as possible to help ward off complications. 
  • Ask your healthcare provider about vaccines that may protect you from bacterial meningitis.
  • If you’ve been around someone who has bacterial meningitis, call your healthcare provider to talk about how to keep from getting sick.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Shelat, Amit, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Ziegler, Olivia, MS, PA
Date Last Reviewed: 3/24/2016
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