What is meningitis?

Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that cover your brain and spinal cord. It can happen when the fluid surrounding those membranes becomes infected with bacteria, a virus, or a fungus. Meningitis can also result from cancer or an allergic reaction.

The most common symptoms of meningitis include:

These symptoms may also be accompanied by:

Meningitis is typically caused by a viral or bacterial infection. When meningitis is caused by bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis, doctors refer to it as meningococcal meningitis. This kind of meningitis can be generally prevented by the meningitis vaccine.

Diagnosis for meningitis

In order to diagnose meningitis, your doctor will perform some tests to determine whether your meninges are inflamed or if the fluid surrounding them is infected. This condition can be very dangerous. If left untreated, it can be deadly within a matter of hours. 

Your doctor will perform a spinal tap, also known as a lumbar puncture, to look for bacteria or viruses in your cerebrospinal fluid. Additionally, your doctor may perform an examination of your eyes and ears, as well as a blood test. Your doctor may also use a computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to assess your head and neck. 

Treatments for meningitis

Doctors treat bacterial meningitis with antibiotics. It is very important that meningococcal meningitis is diagnosed early, and that treatment is provided quickly. Meningitis can be deadly if left untreated.

If your doctor diagnoses you with meningitis, you will likely be hospitalized immediately. If your meningitis is caused by bacteria, your doctor will administer intravenous antibiotics. Your doctor will select the correct antibiotic according to the type of bacteria that is causing the infection. Rapid treatment helps to avoid brain damage or death.

Meningitis vaccine

There are two vaccines that help protect against the varieties, or serotypes, of the most common meningococcal bacteria in the United States. The two types of meningitis vaccine are: 

  • MenACWY (conjugate) vaccines (Menactra® and Menveo®)
  • MenB (recombinant) vaccines (Bexsero® and Trumenba®)

The difference between these vaccines is how they help your body develop protection against the bacteria. The MenACWY vaccine joins a protein to an antigen, the substance that generates antibodies, to improve protection from bacterial meningitis. The MenB vaccine has a protein antigen that is placed within a harmless bacterium or virus. This harmless microbe then copies the antigen, and your immune system responds by creating antibodies.

Doctors recommend that all children aged 11 to 12 receive the MenACWY vaccine. Other groups that should receive it include any infants or adults who might be at elevated risk for exposure to the bacteria, and/or those traveling to certain areas. This vaccine lasts for around five years, after which you will need a booster shot to keep up your immunity.

It is also recommended that young adults receive the MenB vaccine before attending college or other settings in which they will live in close quarters with other people. This vaccine lasts for one or two years, after which you will need a booster shot to keep up your immunity. Since bacterial meningitis is contagious, vaccinating young adults can prevent the spread in dormitories, boarding schools, and military barracks.

Both types of vaccine require multiple doses. The MenACWY has a longer duration of protection of around five years. The MenB offers protection for one to two years.

Additional prevention of meningitis

In addition to a meningitis vaccine, doctors advise that the best ways to avoid contracting meningitis are maintaining overall good health and keeping your distance from people who are sick. 

Possible complications and side effects

Side effects of the meningitis vaccine are usually mild and will fade within a few days. Discuss any allergies or concerns you have about side effects with your doctor.

Side effects of the MenACWY vaccine include:

Side effects of the MenB vaccine include:

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Medically Reviewed on 3/16/2021
References
SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Meningococcal Disease - Diagnosis and Treatment."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Meningococcal Disease - Signs and Symptoms."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Meningococcal Vaccination - What You Should Know."

Columbia University Department of Neurology: "Meningitis."

Mayo Clinic: "Meningitis."

National Health Service: "Meningitis - Treatment."

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: "Meningococcal."