Condition Center: Meningitis

Photo Illustration by Ava Cruz
Photo Illustration by Ava Cruz

This informational guide, part of POPSUGAR's Condition Center, lays out the realities of this health concern: what it is, what it can look like, and strategies that medical experts say are proven to help. You should always consult your doctor regarding matters pertaining to your health and before starting any course of medical treatment.

Meningitis is characterized by inflammation in the lining of the brain, and it's not a disease to take lightly. It can be caused by various things, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites. While the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that many cases of viral meningitis — the most common type — clear up on their own, "bacterial meningitis can lead to permanent brain damage and death," according to Saahir Khan, MD, PhD, an infectious-disease specialist at Keck Medicine of USC.

While meningitis is often considered a disease that impacts younger age groups, people of all ages can get meningitis. In fact, musician and guitarist, Jeff Beck — known as a member of the British band the Yardbirds — died suddenly after contracting bacterial meningitis at 78 years old, according to a statement from Beck's family shared on Jan. 11. "On behalf of his family, it is with deep and profound sadness that we share the news of Jeff Beck's passing," the statement read, as shared on Twitter. "After suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis, he peacefully passed away yesterday."

Knowing the signs and symptoms of meningitis can be crucial to your health. Here's what to know about this serious condition, including possible preventative measures and when to see a doctor.

Understanding Meningitis

The CDC lists six types of meningitis: bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis, fungal meningitis, parasitic meningitis, amebic meningitis (also called primary amebic meningoencephalitis or PAM), and noninfectious meningitis. (We'll get more into the different varieties later). Most types of meningitis are spread through person-to-person contact, the two exceptions being PAM and noninfectious meningitis.

The organism causing meningitis typically enters the body through the mouth, nose, or ears, Dr. Khan explains, which are anatomically close to the brain. In some cases, the journey ends there, and the organism ends up causing a lower-grade issue like an upper respiratory infection (runny nose, sore throat, cough), a sinus infection, or an ear infection. If the organism is able to travel to the brain, meningitis can occur. (Viral meningitis is the most common type, followed by bacterial meningitis; the other types are considered rare.)

While meningitis is often thought to be a disease that impacts newborns and infants (young children are most at risk, per the World Health Organization), people of all ages can get meningitis. For example, bacterial meningitis is most common in infants under the age of 1 and people ages 16 to 21, college students, and adults with certain medical problems, including those without a spleen, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The most common symptoms of all types of meningitis are a fever, a severe headache, and neck stiffness, according to Dr. Kahn. Other symptoms can include the following:

  • Chills
  • Confusion
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Sleepiness or trouble waking up
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lack of energy

If you suspect you have meningitis, it's essential to go to the hospital for diagnosis and treatment. One can't distinguish between viral and bacterial meningitis from symptoms alone, and untreated bacterial meningitis, in particular, can progress within days or even hours, leading to vision changes, weakness, and numbness in extremities along with other symptoms of brain damage, Dr. Khan says. "Once the infection spreads to different parts of the brain, it can cause elevated pressure that can impair the function of the nerves," he says. Untreated bacterial meningitis will eventually affect the nerves involved in breathing and can lead to a coma and death. Fortunately, there are preventative measures you can take to protect yourself against meningitis, like the meningococcal vaccine (more on this below).

Causes of Meningitis

The six types of meningitis vary by cause. Here's a breakdown of each, according to the CDC:

  • Bacterial meningitis: caused by bacteria, including Streptococcus pneumoniae, Group B Streptococcus, and Escherichia coli (E. coli).
  • Viral meningitis: caused by viruses, including mumps, herpes, measles, and influenza viruses.
  • Fungal meningitis: caused by fungi, often by inhaling fungal spores.
  • Parasitic meningitis: caused by parasites.
  • Amebic meningitis: caused by the ameba Naegleria fowleri, which lives in warm fresh water and soil and enters the body through the nose to cause infection. Amebic meningitis is called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) and is extremely rare.
  • Noninfectious meningitis: caused by cancers, lupus, head injury, brain surgery, and certain types of drugs.

Most Effective Treatments For Meningitis

This bears repeating: if you're experiencing any symptoms of meningitis, especially the triad of fever, severe headache, and neck stiffness, go to the emergency room or urgent care immediately. "Particularly bacterial meningitis is a real emergency," Dr. Khan emphasizes. "It's not something that you can wait to see your doctor next week. It's something that needs to be seen and treated really urgently."

Treatment options for bacterial meningitis include intravenous antibiotics. "For most cases of meningitis, antibiotics are given initially until the cause is identified, just in case it's bacterial," Dr. Khan says. Some types of viral meningitis can be treated by antiviral medications, he adds, though most cases of meningitis can be managed by supportive care. Antifungal medications are used to treat fungal meningitis. There is no specific treatment for parasitic meningitis, though medications can be used for pain or to control the body's reaction to the parasite, according to the CDC.

Vaccines are available for some types of bacterial and viral meningitis, including a meningococcal vaccine for children and booster for adolescents, with additional doses available to immunocompromised adults. Dr. Khan also recommends taking precautions like washing your hands, not going to gatherings if you're sick, and wearing a face mask during fall and winter, when respiratory viruses are common.

"A lot of these viruses and bacteria are, essentially, transmitted through human-to-human contact and respiratory transmission," Dr. Khan says. "In most cases, they may just cause mild upper-respiratory infection, but in a small proportion of cases, you can get meningitis."