Meningitis is inflammation of the meninges, which are the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord. This inflammation usually happens as a result of an infection caused by a virus or bacteria.
Some types of meningitis can also be caused by fungi, parasites, certain diseases, medications, and injuries to the head or spine.
Meningitis can cause serious complications and can even be fatal. Anyone can get meningitis, but young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop the condition.
Meningitis can affect the body in many different ways. Some symptoms, such as fever and stiff neck, may occur right away. Others, however, may appear after a person's meningitis infection is gone.
While many people recover from meningitis with proper medical treatment, some people may have lifelong effects. Meningitis may cause the following effects during or after the infection:
One of the most common symptoms of meningitis is a severe headache. The inflammation that occurs near the brain and spinal cord can result in significant pain. This headache may be mistaken for a migraine.
2. Sudden fever
A fever is the body's way of trying to fight a foreign invader, such as a virus or bacteria. A high fever is common in both the early and later stages of the illness.
3. Confusion and learning problems
The swelling and inflammation can cause confusion and behavioral changes. In some cases, long-term problems with memory and concentration can occur. Children may experience learning difficulties.
4. Bulging soft spot
Babies have areas on the head known as fontanels, which are gaps where the skull's bones have not yet fused together. The largest fontanel is on top of the head and should feel firm and slightly indented. If a baby's fontanel appears to be bulging, this could be a sign of brain swelling or fluid buildup, which requires emergency medical attention.
5. Stiff neck
A child or baby with a stiff neck from meningitis may hold their head and neck straight and be unwilling or unable to bend the head forward. An adult may notice a painful, stiff neck during the acute phase of meningitis.
6. Sensitivity to light
Brain swelling and headache resulting from meningitis can result in light sensitivity and a worsening headache when looking toward a light. Babies or children may cry or turn away from light.
7. Sleepiness or difficulty waking
If a person cannot be woken up or seems to be excessively sleepy, this may be an early symptom of meningitis infection. The illness may affect the brain's alertness, making it hard for a person to stay awake.
8. Extreme fatigue
As the body tries to fight the infection, a person with meningitis may become extremely lethargic with little to no energy.
9. Lack of appetite
All systems of the body can be altered when the brain is swollen from a meningitis infection. This means a person may not feel like eating or may be feeling too ill to eat.
10. Nausea and vomiting
A severe headache, brain swelling, and the body's defense against the illness can cause stomach upset and vomiting, especially in children.
11. Loss of consciousness
If swelling and inflammation put too much pressure on the brain, a person may faint or lose consciousness.
Several different types of meningitis may cause a rash. If a person is significantly ill with fever and develops a rash, they should seek medical care.
13. Seizures or epilepsy
When meningitis causes brain swelling or pressure, it can disrupt the brain's normal function, causing a seizure. Having seizures during an episode of meningitis does not mean that a person has, or will develop, epilepsy. However, because this pressure and inflammation can permanently damage the brain, occasionally people develop epilepsy after recovering from meningitis.
In severe cases of meningitis, a person may experience enough brain damage to cause a coma.
15. Memory loss
After recovering from meningitis, some people experience problems with memory. This can be a result of damage to the brain during the illness.
16. Trouble concentrating
Children who have recovered from meningitis may have difficulty concentrating due to lingering brain damage. Adults may struggle to focus at work or in everyday activities, such as conversations or reading a book.
17. Hearing loss, ringing in the ears, or deafness
Hearing loss is a common effect after meningitis infection in children and adults. After recovering from meningitis, people should have a hearing test to check for potential hearing problems. The hearing loss may range from mild to severe, and it can be permanent in some cases. Ringing in the ears or tinnitus can also occur after meningitis.
18. Vision loss or blindness
The optic nerve, which plays an essential role in vision, can occasionally be damaged after a meningitis infection. This can cause temporary or permanent blurry vision or even blindness. During the acute stage of illness, a person may also experience double vision.
19. Speech problems
The brain controls a person's speech, and if it becomes damaged through meningitis, a person's speech patterns may change, although this is rare. Speech therapy can sometimes help a person regain their ability to speak after recovering from the illness.
20. Dizziness or loss of balance
The brain and ears interact to help a person keep their balance and their awareness of space around them. This can be disrupted by swelling in the brain, leading to a loss of coordination, dizziness, and falls. If this happens, it usually goes away after the meningitis resolves.
21. Kidney failure
Some types of bacterial meningitis can cause kidney (renal) failure or long-term kidney damage. Some medications for meningitis can also damage the kidneys.
22. Adrenal gland failure
A rare but severe complication of bacterial meningitis (usually meningococcal meningitis) known as Waterhouse-Friderichsen syndrome can cause the adrenal glands to stop working. This causes the body to go into shock and can be fatal.
Some types of meningitis can be spread from person to person. How meningitis is spread depends on whether it is viral, bacterial, fungal, or related to another cause.
Bacterial meningitis is spread through:
- labor and childbirth (an infected mother can pass bacteria to the baby)
- air droplets, which includes coughing and sneezing from an infected person
- close contact, such as living in the same household or kissing
- sharing drinks or utensils with an infected person
- eating food that has been contaminated by an infected person
Several different types of bacteria can cause bacterial meningitis. Several of the vaccines given to infants and young children can prevent some of these types.
Preteens, teens, and high-risk adults and children should get a vaccine against meningococcal meningitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Not everyone who is exposed to the bacteria that cause meningitis gets sick, but they may become carriers and can spread it to others.
Most of the more significant long-term effects listed above happen only after bacterial meningitis.
Viral meningitis is by far the most common type of meningitis. It may be spread by:
- close contact with another person, such as kissing
- touching an object, such as a doorknob, that has the virus on it
- sharing drinks or utensils with a person who has the virus
- contact with body fluids of a person with the virus
Many different viruses can cause viral meningitis. It is typically milder than bacterial meningitis and has fewer long-term effects.
The best way to prevent viral meningitis is to practice frequent hand washing, especially before eating, after using the toilet or changing diapers, and before preparing food.
Other types of meningitis do not spread from person to person. This includes meningitis caused by fungi, diseases, injuries, and medications.
Many of these symptoms can appear with other illnesses, such as the flu, a head injury, a migraine headache, or a stroke.
Children, in particular, may have symptoms that are difficult to identify at first. Some babies appear to be unusually irritable and inactive or may be vomiting and refusing to feed.
Because some types of meningitis can be life-threatening, it is important to seek immediate medical care if any of these symptoms appear.
Thanks to advances in medical care, many people can recover fully from a meningitis infection. Hand washing, vaccination, and careful attention to symptoms are the best ways to prevent serious complications.