Surrounding your brain and spinal cord is a three-layered membrane called the meninges. These tissues protect and cushion your brain and support the health of your central nervous system.
These tissues can sometimes become infected, swollen, or inflamed. This is a condition known as meningitis.
Types of Meningitis
The most common type of meningitis is bacterial meningitis. Since your meningeal membranes support the blood vessels that nourish your brain and central nervous system, bacteria that enter your bloodstream can potentially infect these tissues.
There are a few other types of meningitis, distinguished by their cause:
- Bacterial meningitis
- Fungal meningitis
- Viral or aseptic meningitis
- Parasitic meningitis
- Amebic meningitis
It is also possible to have noninfectious meningitis, where the inflammation is caused by a head injury, cancer, lupus, certain medications, or other factors.
Meningitis can also be delineated in terms of whether it is acute or chronic:
- Acute meningitis: symptoms develop quickly, usually over the course of a few hours to a couple of days
- Chronic meningitis: symptoms develop more slowly, over the course of weeks or months, often due to a weakened immune system resulting from AIDS, cancer, chemotherapy, or long-term use of prednisone steroids.
Signs and Symptoms of Meningitis
Bacterial meningitis must be treated as soon as possible due to the risk of serious health complications (and potential death) in untreated cases. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the early signs of meningitis. Although it is a rare condition, most cases occur in young children under the age of 5, so parents and caregivers must be extra vigilant.
Signs and symptoms of meningitis may include:
- Severe headache
- Neck stiffness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sensitivity to bright light
- Drowsiness, sluggishness, or unresponsiveness
- Poor appetite or refusal to eat
- Purple or red rash
- Swelling of head
- Confusion or irritability
Not all of these symptoms may be present in every case. Be on the lookout for sudden onset of severe headache, fever, and stiff neck, especially alongside photophobia (sensitivity to bright light) and nausea.
Meningitis can progress very quickly, so it’s essential to seek medical attention immediately if you suspect you or your child may be sick with this condition. Your doctors will perform tests (spinal tap, MRI, and CT scans) to rule out other potential conditions and confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment and Outlook
Meningitis treatment will depend on the specific cause. For example, bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics, while fungal meningitis requires antifungal medications.
Viral meningitis does not typically require specific treatment, as the virus will usually clear up on its own within a few weeks. However, you may be given medication to help relieve symptoms or treat any complications that develop.
Early diagnosis and treatment are key to the best possible outcome for all types of meningitis. With prompt medical care, the prognosis is typically good.
Meningitis vaccinations are available and recommended for certain age groups, so talk to your doctor or pediatrician about which ones are appropriate for you and your family.