Meningitis, Bacterial

What is bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the tissues and fluid that surround the brain and spinal cord. When bacteria cause the infection, it is called bacterial meningitis. Meningitis is a serious, life-threatening illness. If it is treated right away, chances of complete recovery are good. In some cases it may cause severe problems, including brain damage or death.

Another name for this infection is spinal meningitis.

What is the cause?

Bacteria can spread to the brain and spinal cord:

  • From a nearby infection, such as a bad sinus infection
  • Through the bloodstream, for example from a severe kidney infection

Some forms of bacterial meningitis can be spread from person to person. If you have had close contact with someone who has meningitis, tell your healthcare provider within 24 hours or as soon as possible. Close contact includes living in the same house, going to the same day care center, or having close personal contact, such as you might have with a partner, boyfriend or girlfriend. The bacteria can be spread by coughing or kissing. If you have had close exposure to someone who has meningitis, you may need antibiotics to help keep you from getting the disease.

People who have the highest risk of getting this disease are:

  • Older adults
  • People living in close quarters, such as military personnel and students in dorms
  • Children less than 5 years old
  • People with a medical condition that lowers their ability to fight infections, such as diabetes or HIV

What are the symptoms?

Bacterial meningitis can develop quickly or may develop over several days. Viral meningitis, which is usually a milder illness, can start with the same symptoms. The most common symptoms are fever, headache, and a stiff neck. Your neck may be so stiff that you can’t touch your chin to your chest. If you have these symptoms, it is very important to get medical care right away.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Body aches

Later symptoms may include:

  • Rash with red spots or blotches, or purple, bruiselike areas on the skin
  • Seizures
  • Severe confusion

In severe cases it can cause coma and death.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you.

Tests may include:

  • Lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, which uses a needle to get a sample of fluid from the area around the spinal cord
  • Blood tests
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the brain
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the brain

How is it treated?

Treatment must start right away and you will stay in the hospital. You will be given antibiotics for 1 to 3 weeks. You may need to keep taking antibiotics after going home from the hospital.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • If you are taking an antibiotic, take the medicine for as long as your healthcare provider prescribes, even if you feel better. If you stop taking the medicine too soon, you may not kill all of the bacteria and you may get sick again.

Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover from this illness
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent bacterial meningitis?

A shot of the meningococcal vaccine can prevent most forms of bacterial meningitis. This vaccine is recommended as a routine shot for children 11 to 12 years old. It is also recommended for the following groups if they have not yet had the shot:

  • Teens in high school or about to start high school
  • Students about to start college or living in college dorms
  • Military recruits
  • Travelers to areas where they might be exposed to bacteria that cause meningitis
  • People who have a medical condition called terminal complement deficiency
  • People who do not have a spleen

Other adolescents and college students, as well as people infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV/AIDS), may want to ask their provider about getting the meningitis shot.

To prevent spread of bacterial meningitis to others:

  • Wash your hands often and especially after using the restroom, coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. Also wash your hands before eating or touching your eyes.
  • Don’t go to work or school. Avoid close contact with other people, including kissing and hugging. Ask your provider if other family members should take medicine or get shots to help keep the disease from spreading.
  • Use paper cups, or separate cups, and paper towels in bathrooms instead of shared drinking cups and hand towels.
  • Don’t share food and eating utensils with others.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-11-04
Last reviewed: 2013-12-04
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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