Meningitis is inflammation of the fluid and the membranes (meninges) that surround your brain and spinal cord.
The swelling from meningitis usually triggers signs and symptoms such as a headache, fever, and a stiff neck.
Most cases of meningitis in the United States are caused by a viral infection, but bacterial, parasitic, and fungal infections are other causes. Some cases of meningitis improve within a few weeks without treatment. Others can be life-threatening and require emergency antibiotic treatment.
See a doctor right away if you think someone may have meningitis. Treating bacterial meningitis early on can prevent serious complications.
The first symptoms of meningitis may mimic the flu. Symptoms can develop over several hours or a few days.
Possible signs and symptoms in people over the age of 2 include:
- Suddenly high fever
- Severe headache that looks different than normal
- Headache accompanied by nausea or vomiting
- Confusion or difficulty concentrating
- Sleepiness or difficulty waking up
- No appetite or thirst
- Rash (sometimes like meningococcal meningitis)
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Viral infections are the most common cause of meningitis, followed by bacterial infections and rarely fungal and parasitic infections. Because bacterial infections can be life threatening, it is important to identify the cause.
Risk factors for meningitis are:
- Skip vaccinations. The risk increases for anyone who has not followed the recommended vaccination schedule for children or adults.
- Age. Most cases of viral meningitis occur in children under 5 years of age. Bacterial meningitis is common in people under the age of 20.
- Live in a community environment. Students living in dormitories, personnel in military bases, and children in residential schools and day care centers are at higher risk for meningococcal meningitis. This is likely due to the fact that the bacteria spreads through the airways and quickly across large groups.
- Pregnancy. Pregnancy increases your risk of listeriosis – an infection caused by the bacteria listeria that can also cause meningitis. Listeriosis increases the risk of miscarriages, stillbirths, and premature births.
Common bacteria or viruses that can cause meningitis can be spread by coughing, sneezing, kissing, or sharing utensils, a toothbrush, or a cigarette.
These steps can help prevent meningitis:
- Wash your hands Thorough hand washing prevents the spread of germs. Teach children to wash their hands frequently, especially before eating and after using the toilet, to spend time in crowded public places, or to pet animals. Show them how to vigorously and thoroughly wash and rinse their hands.
- Practice good hygiene. Do not share drinks, food, straws, cooking utensils, lip balms, or toothbrushes with anyone. Teach children and teenagers not to share these items.
- Stay healthy. Maintain your immune system by getting enough rest, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Cover your mouth If you have to cough or sneeze, be sure to cover your mouth and nose.