Meningitis is a condition that can cause a fever, headache, and stiff neck. It happens when the lining that covers the brain and spinal cord (called the "meninges") gets inflamed or infected.

There are two main types of meningitis, depending on which germs are causing the infection. Bacteria cause bacterial meningitis. Viruses cause viral meningitis, which is also called aseptic meningitis. Both types of meningitis can cause similar symptoms.

Bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency. If it is not treated quickly, it can lead to brain problems such as hearing loss or learning problems. It can also lead to death.

Can bacterial meningitis be spread from one person to another?

Yes. Some types of bacteria can be spread from one person to another but generally only with close contact. Household contacts, contacts who share the same drinking glass, silverware, toothbrush, kissing, etc. Generally close prolonged contact within 3 feet of the person is the focus of possible concern, all within the last 7 days before the person became sick.

Can bacterial meningitis be prevented?

Sometimes. Certain vaccines can help prevent bacterial meningitis. Since 2005 the incidence of bacterial meningitis has decreased on college campuses because of vaccines. All students must have the meningitis ACWY conjugate vaccine.

Two types of vaccines are available in the United States that can help prevent meningococcal disease, which is any type of illness caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacteria.

  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccines (Menactra and Menveo), for Serogroup ACWY – Required
  • Serogroup B meningococcal vaccines (Bexsero and Trumemba) – Now Recommended

All 11 to 12-year old’s should be vaccinated with a meningococcal conjugate vaccine. A booster dose is required after age 16 years (before age 22) for those entering the University. The conjugate vaccine covers 4 serotypes of the Neisseria meningitis bacteria. (Serotypes A, C, W, Y). Studies show the conjugate vaccine, first available in 2005 -- protection wanes after 5 years and a booster at age 16 is recommended

If someone with whom you have been in close contact has bacterial meningitis, you should take antibiotics. Sometimes, other people at home need to take antibiotics to keep from getting the infection.

Plus, you can help avoid getting sick by washing your hands well before eating, and not sharing cups or silverware.

What are the symptoms of bacterial meningitis?

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis usually come on suddenly, so people can get very sick over a short period of time. Common symptoms include:

  • Fever – But some people have a temperature that is lower than normal instead of a fever.
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck – This happens most often in adults and children. Babies might not get a stiff neck.
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Acting confused, or being hard to wake up
  • Having light bother a person's eyes
  • A rash that looks like red or purple spots on the skin that do not go away when touched
  • Seizures – Seizures are waves of abnormal electrical activity in the brain. They can make people pass out or move or behave strangely.

Should I see the doctor or nurse?

Yes. If you have a fever, headache, and stiff neck, go to the emergency room right away.

Will I have tests?

Yes. Your doctor will learn about your symptoms and do an exam. He or she will do tests to see if you have meningitis and find out what type of bacteria is causing the infection. The tests can include:

  • Blood tests
  • A lumbar puncture (sometimes called a "spinal tap") – During this procedure, a doctor puts a thin needle into your lower back and removes a small amount of spinal fluid. Spinal fluid is the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. He or she will do lab tests on the spinal fluid.
  • A CT scan of the brain – This is an imaging test that creates pictures of the brain.

How is bacterial meningitis treated?

People are treated in the hospital with:

  • Antibiotic medicines that go into a vein through a tube called an "IV" – The antibiotics used depend on the type of bacteria causing the infection.
  • Fluids and other medicines that go into a vein – These medicines sometimes include “"steroids." The steroids help protect your brain from the effects of the bacterial meningitis. These are not the same as the steroids some athletes take illegally.