Meningitis, a critical and sometimes deadly infection, affects the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. There are several types of meningitis, and a patient needs to be evaluated by a doctor to quickly determine the cause and severity.

“Meningitis is inflammation of the tissues, called the leptomeninges,” says Linda Salinas, an epidemiologist with OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City. “It can have infectious and non-infectious causes. The infectious causes can be bacterial, viral, fungal or, uncommonly, parasitic.”

Noninfectious causes include complications from cancers, lupus, head injuries, brain surgery and certain medications.

Bradley Hardy, a family medicine physician with Warren Clinic, explains the difference in severity between the two most common forms: viral and bacterial. 

“Viral infections typically are benign and self-limited, while bacterial causes are life threatening and require antibiotic treatment,” he says. “Patients suffering from either viral or bacterial meningitis are started on broad spectrum antibiotic medications to cover for bacterial infections while awaiting test results to determine the pathogen causing meningitis. At that time, if it is found to be viral, antibiotics will be discontinued, and if bacterial, specific antibiotic adjustments are made.”

For certain types of meningitis, vaccines are available. These include the meningococcal, pneumococcal and Hib vaccines. 

“Different bacteria are treated by different antibiotics,” says Salinas. “Some of the viral infections do not have specific treatments, while others have antiviral medications available. Following exposure to a specific bacterial cause, a short course of antibiotic may be given to people who had close contact to the patient to prevent transmission. While hospitalized, a patient may be placed in isolation to prevent the spread to others.”

Meningitis can affect people of all ages. The most common symptoms are fever, headache and stiff neck.

“Less common symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, sensitivity to light, muscles aches or excessive sleepiness,” says Hardy.

Ways to prevent the illness include avoiding tick and mosquito bites, practicing good hygiene and hand washing, and not swimming in fresh and/or warm bodies of water such as lakes and ponds. 

A daunting uptick in college cases of meningitis do not have to do with the specific age group, says Hardy.

“This has to do with college students living in close proximity with one another in dormitories,” he explains. “It is not that this age group is at a higher risk in and of itself, it is that any individual living in a dormitory setting would see a higher likelihood of contracting the disease. This additionally holds true for individuals residing in military barracks or other crowded living conditions.”

If you experience the symptoms associated with meningitis, Salinas recommends seeking medical attention immediately. She says a spinal tap is important for the diagnosis of meningitis and helps doctors determine the correct treatment plan. 

“While rare, this is still a common condition that is seen in ERs every day,” says Hardy. “Actually, when our son was 12 days old, he was acting a little more tired than normal and soon came down with a fever. Fortunately, my amazing wife recognized this. We took him to the Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis, where he was diagnosed with viral meningitis. We spent several sleepless nights at the hospital with our newborn, and I feel for any parent who has to endure seeing their child undergo a spinal tap, blood cultures and the uncertainty while awaiting culture results.”