Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes surrounding your brain and spinal cord. This condition is usually caused by an infection. The infection can be viral, bacterial, or fungal. Depending on the cause of the infection, meningitis could get better on its own in a few weeks, or it could be a life-threatening emergency that requires antibiotics immediately. Regardless of the cause, the recognizable symptoms of meningitis will usually be the same.
Symptoms of Meningitis
Meningococcal disease is often misdiagnosed because early symptoms are very similar to the flu or other viral infections. Even if you have been vaccinated against meningitis, you should be aware of the symptoms so you will be able to recognize them in yourself or others. If you are experiencing any of the first five symptoms on the following list, seek medical attention right away.
The symptoms of meningitis include:
- High fever
- Severe headache
- Stiff neck
- Sensitivity to bright light
- Extreme sleepiness
Newborns and infants will usually display different symptoms than adults with meningitis. For this age group, signs and symptoms will typically include:
- High fever
- Constant crying
- Excessive sleepiness
- Inactivity or sluggishness
- Poor feeding
- A bulge in the fontanel, the soft spot of the head
- Stiffness in the body and neck
Even though viral meningitis has the potential to improve without treatment, bacterial meningitis is much more serious. It can come on very quickly and requires antibiotic treatment as soon as possible in order to improve chances of recovery. Without treatment, bacterial meningitis can greatly increase the risk for permanent brain damage and can prove fatal in just a matter of days. The only way to determine which kind of meningitis you have is to test the spinal fluid.
If you call your primary health care provider to set up an appointment, make sure to describe the type and severity of your symptoms. If the doctor says it is not necessary to come in right away, rest as much as possible while you are waiting for your appointment. Drink plenty of fluids and take acetaminophen to reduce your fever and body ache. Avoid aspirin or other drugs that are considered nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, since these might not be safe for people who have untreated meningitis. If you suspect you have meningitis, do not go to school or work, where you have the potential to expose other people until you have a confirmed diagnosis.
Meningitis is diagnosed based on an accurate medical history, a physical exam, and diagnostic tests. These tests will usually start with an examination of the head, ears, throat, and skin along the spine to check for infection. Another possibility would be for your doctor to draw blood from the vein and examine it under a microscope for any bacteria or other microorganisms that might be growing. X-rays and CT scans of the head, chest, or sinuses can reveal swelling or inflammation that will help your doctor know where to look for areas of infection. Lastly, the only definitive diagnosis for meningitis requires a spinal tap or lumbar puncture. The doctor would analyze your cerebrospinal fluid that is collected during this procedure for signs of meningitis.
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