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General Health

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges (the membrane that lines the brain) and the fluid that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord. The infection can be caused by either a virus or bacteria. Viral meningitis is usually less severe and typically resolves itself without specific treatment. Bacterial meningitis, though treatable with antibiotics, is often more severe and can result in complications such as brain damage, hearing loss, learning disability, and death.

Is meningitis contagious?

Some forms of meningitis are contagious. They can be spread from person to person through close contact with the oral or nasal secretions of a person infected with meningitis. Because meningitis can be spread through air droplets (coughing etc), it is a particular concern on college campuses where students live in close proximity to many other students. Cases of meningitis may occur in clusters. Since this can be a very dangerous disease, meningitis is to be reported to the local health department as soon as possible.

What are the signs and symptoms of meningitis?

Symptoms of meningitis might include:

  • Sluggishness, muscle aches or weakness
  • High fever
  • Rash
  • Vomiting
  • Severe headache
  • Neck stiffness
  • Lethargy
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
How is meningitis diagnosed?

A sample of spinal fluid is taken during a procedure called a spinal tap or lumbar puncture to diagnose meningitis. The fluid is cultured to determine if and what type of bacteria is growing in the spinal fluid.

How is meningitis treated?

Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics, and they are most effective if given EARLY in the disease. People in close contact with someone diagnosed with bacterial meningitis may be given an antibiotic to decrease the risk of acquiring the disease.

There is no specific treatment for viral meningitis, but some symptoms can be relieved with appropriate medications.

Is there a vaccination to prevent getting meningitis?

Two meningococcal vaccines are available in the United States. Both can prevent 4 types of bacterial meningococcal disease. The meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine (MPSV4) has been available since 1981 and provides immunity for 3-5 years. The newest meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4) was licensed in 2005 and provides protection for a longer timeframe, about 5-7 years. Both vaccines protect about 90% of the individuals who get them. The vaccine only protects against bacterial meningitis.

Where can I be immunized against meningitis?

IUPUI Health Services will immunize against meningitis. Your primary care provider probably carries the vaccines for meningitis immunization. Many local health departments offer the meningitis vaccine.

Click here for a printer-friendly fact sheet on meningitis.