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Meningitis is a word you might hear on the news. That's because there are sometimes outbreaks of meningitis at schools or colleges — and it can be a serious illness. But many people recover completely after they have meningitis and there are ways to prevent it.

What Is Meningitis?

The central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) is surrounded by cerebrospinal (say: suh-REE-bro-SPY-nul) fluid. This fluid acts to cushion and protect the central nervous system when you move around. Even more protection is given by the meninges (say: muh-NIN-jeez), which are the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord.

Meningitis (say: men-un-JYE-tus) is a disease involving inflammation (swelling), or irritation, of the meninges. There are different kinds of meningitis, but most of the time it is caused by germs, especially viruses.

Meningitis gets attention because it not only makes a person feel sick, it can have lasting effects on a person's ability to think and learn. It also can cause hearing loss. But many people recover from the infection without permanent damage. And the illness is so rare, you may never know anyone who gets it.

How Does Someone Get Meningitis?

The body has natural defenses against infections — and usually even if someone comes across a virus or bacteria that can cause meningitis, the body can fight it off. Everyone has lots of germs living on and in their bodies. Most of the time, these germs don't cause any illness. In fact, some of them, like some of the bacteria normally found in the intestines, help the body to work properly. However, some germs do cause infections.

If a person gets an infection, the body's immune system will go to work to fight it. That's why you might feel sick one day, but then you start to feel better. The immune system is doing its job.

Some germs, however, are tricky. They can outsmart the body's defenses and spread inside of the body. Some of these germs can even invade the central nervous system, infecting the meninges and causing meningitis.

Bacteria and Viruses

Many viruses can cause viral meningitis. They include a family of viruses known as enteroviruses (say: en-TEH-row-VYE-rus-ez). Like most viruses, enteroviruses infect your body through saliva (spit), feces (poop), and nasal discharge (snot). This is why washing your hands after you go to the bathroom, after you sneeze, and before you eat is so important.

It's also possible to get viral meningitis as a complication of chickenpox, but this is also very rare in healthy kids. These days, many kids are vaccinated with two shots to prevent chickenpox before starting school.

Bacterial meningitis is contagious, which means it can be passed to someone else by spit or snot. It can be spread when you sneeze or cough, when you share cups or utensils, or when you kiss someone. Vaccines are given to kids to help protect them from serious diseases like meningitis.

What Are the Symptoms of Meningitis?

Usually, someone with meningitis is very sick. Symptoms may include:

  • a very bad headache that won't go away
  • neck stiffness
  • back stiffness
  • eye pain when exposed to light
  • nausea, or being sick to the stomach
  • vomiting, or throwing up
  • body aches
  • fever
  • feeling very sleepy or unable to fully wake up
  • feeling very confused or out of it

Symptoms of meningitis can come on very quickly or take a couple of days to appear. Anyone who is ill with symptoms of meningitis needs to seek medical care right away.

What Will the Doctor Do?

When someone is ill and may have symptoms of meningitis, a doctor will ask many questions to figure out how long the person has been sick and what might have caused the illness. The doctor will do a complete physical examination and if he or she suspects that meningitis might be causing a person's illness, a spinal tap is usually done.

A spinal tap allows the doctor to collect some of the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. During a spinal tap, a person usually lies on his or her side curled into a ball. First, the doctor will numb the skin with medication. (This is done to prevent pain.)

The person needs to lie very still while the doctor inserts a very thin needle into the spinal column. The needle is placed between two vertebral bones in the lower back away from the spinal cord. Fluid is removed and collected in some tubes. Then the needle is removed and the doctor puts a bandage over the area.

After it is collected, the spinal fluid will be examined under a microscope to see if any bacteria, cells, or substances that indicate inflammation or infection are there. Usually by looking at the spinal fluid in this way, a doctor will be able to tell if someone has meningitis. The fluid will also be sent to a laboratory to be tested for bacteria and sometimes for viruses. Once the doctors know what germ is causing the meningitis, they can choose the best medicine to treat the infection. Treatment depends on the type of meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis is very serious and a person will need to be in the hospital during treatment. Strong antibiotic medicine will be given through an IV (a thin tube that goes into a vein to give medicine) to get rid of the bacteria. Fluids containing glucose (sugar) and minerals may also be given through the IV to help a person recover.

Viral meningitis can also be serious, but usually is not as bad as meningitis caused by bacteria. Someone with viral meningitis may still need to be in the hospital for a few days and it may take weeks before he or she is feeling better. Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so a person with viral meningitis will need lots of rest to fight off the infection.

Can Meningitis Be Prevented?

If someone gets bacterial meningitis in your neighborhood or school, doctors will want to know who was in close contact with this person. Close contact means living with or spending a lot of time with the person, or sharing the same utensils or cups. This is important because people who have been in close contact may need antibiotics for a few days, just in case they were infected with the bacteria, too. The antibiotic may help prevent them from developing meningitis. But antibiotics won't prevent sickness if a virus caused the meningitis.

If you've had all your vaccinations, they will help protect you from getting meningitis. But there's another way to prevent those germs from getting inside your body: Wash your hands. Wash up regularly with warm, soapy water — especially before eating, after using the bathroom, and whenever your hands are dirty. It's also smart to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Then — you guessed it — wash your hands!

Reviewed by: Nicole A. Green, MD
Date reviewed: April 2013

 
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What Are Germs?
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Why Do I Need to Wash My Hands?
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Related Resources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The CDC (the national public health institute of the United States) promotes health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability.
Stalking the Mysterious Microbe
On this American Society for Microbiology site, kids can learn more about bacteria, viruses, and other microbes.