Bacterial meningitis is an infection of tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord. It can be deadly if it is not treated within hours.
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The infection can be caused by many types of bacteria. The bacteria is passed from an infected person through:
- Coughing, sneezing, or kissing
- Fluid contact between a mother and child during birth
- Contact with food that is served to others
Things that may raise the risk of bacterial meningitis are:
- Community living, such as a college dormitory or military base
- Close and prolonged contact with people with meningitis
- Travel to places with outbreaks of the infection
- Changes in the nasal passages and throat due to birth defects or head trauma
- Suppressed immune system caused by certain health conditions or medicines
- Prior surgery
- Having cochlear implants
Meningitis can cause sudden onset of:
- High fever
- Very stiff, sore neck
Other symptoms that may develop are:
- Red or purple skin rash
- Bluish skin color
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sensitivity to bright lights
Babies may show:
- Yellowing of the skin or eyes
- Problems feeding or lack of hunger
- Tightness or bulging on the top of the head
- Problems waking
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done.
Tests may be done to look for signs of infection. They may include:
- Blood tests
- Blood cultures
- Urine tests
- Tests of mucous and pus from your skin
- Lumbar puncture
to test the fluid around the spine and brain
Treatment needs to start as soon as possible. Antibiotics will be given to fight the infection. Other medicine, like steroids, can help to ease pressure and swelling. Support care may be needed until the brain has recovered.
Vaccines can prevent some types of bacterial meningitis.
Bacterial meningitis in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/bacterial-meningitis-in-adults. Accessed October 11, 2020.
Bacterial meningitis in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/bacterial-meningitis-in-children. Accessed October 11, 2020.
McGill F, Heyderman RS, et al. Acute bacterial meningitis in adults. Lancet. 2016 Dec 17;388(10063):3036-3047.
Meningitis and encephalitis fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Meningitis-and-Encephalitis-Fact-Sheet. Accessed October 11, 2020.
Meningococcal disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/meningococcal/about/index.html. Accessed October 11, 2020.
Last reviewed October 2020 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Rimas Lukas, MD
Last Updated: 8/12/2020