Spinal meningitis, more commonly known as meningitis, is inflammation of the meninges, the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It is a serious and potentially life threatening condition.

The symptoms, treatment options, and outlook for patients with spinal meningitis can vary depending on the cause of the infection.

The cause may be viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic.

This article covers everything to know about meningitis.

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Meningitis symptoms can develop quickly, within hours or over a few days. Initial symptoms often resemble those of the flu, making early diagnosis challenging. Common symptoms include:

  • fever, which is a temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or above
  • severe headache that seems different from normal
  • stiff neck
  • nausea or vomiting
  • confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • seizures
  • sleepiness or difficulty waking up
  • sensitivity to light
  • lack of appetite or thirst
  • skin rash, which is more common in cases of meningococcal meningitis

In infants, symptoms may include irritability, excessive sleepiness, poor feeding, and a bulging fontanelle — the soft spot on an infant’s head.

The major causes of meningitis include:

Viral infections

Viral infections are the most common cause of meningitis. They usually cause less severe cases and often resolve without specific treatment. Enteroviruses are the most common viral cause, but other viruses, such as herpes simplex virus, HIV, mumps, and West Nile virus, can also cause viral meningitis.

Bacterial infections

A bacterial infection can cause severe meningitis, which is more likely to result in long-term or life threatening complications. Common bacteria that cause meningitis include Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis — which causes meningococcal meningitis — Haemophilus influenzae type b, and Listeria monocytogenes.

Fungal infections

Fungal meningitis is less common and usually occurs in individuals with weakened immune systems, such as those with stage 3 HIV. Cryptococcus species are a common cause of fungal meningitis.

Parasitic infections

Less commonly, parasites can cause meningitis. One example is Naegleria fowleri, a free-living amoeba that causes severe meningitis. People may become infected after swimming in freshwater lakes or rivers.

Noninfectious forms of meningitis can also result from certain cancers, chemical irritation, drug allergies, and some types of inflammatory diseases.

Read more about the types of meningitis.

Diagnosing spinal meningitis involves a combination of clinical evaluation, laboratory tests, and imaging studies. Key diagnostic steps include:

  • Medical history and physical examination: A healthcare professional will assess symptoms and perform a physical exam, looking for signs of meningitis such as fever, neck stiffness, and neurological abnormalities.
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): The definitive test for meningitis involves collecting and analyzing cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that a doctor obtains via a lumbar puncture. The CSF analysis can help detect meningitis and determine its cause.
  • Blood tests: Blood cultures can identify bacteria or fungi in the blood. Other blood tests can indicate the presence of infection or inflammation.
  • Imaging tests: While not diagnostic for meningitis, doctors may order CT or MRI scans of the head to rule out other conditions, such as brain abscesses or swelling, before a lumbar puncture takes place. Some of these tests can also indicate swelling in the meninges, the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord.
  • Other tests: Depending on the suspected cause, doctors may order additional tests. For example, a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test can detect viral DNA or RNA in the CSF.

The treatment of spinal meningitis depends on the underlying cause.

  • Viral meningitis: This is often less severe and resolves without specific treatment. Supportive care, such as rest, hydration, and over-the-counter pain medications, can help relieve symptoms.
  • Bacterial meningitis: This is a medical emergency. Treatment typically involves intravenous antibiotics and corticosteroids to reduce inflammation. The specific antibiotics doctors recommend depend on the type of bacteria causing the infection.
  • Fungal meningitis: Treatment usually involves long-term antifungal medication.
  • Parasitic meningitis: The treatment may vary on the basis of the type of parasite causing the infection and can involve antiparasitic medications.

Read about how to prevent meningitis.

The outlook for spinal meningitis varies depending on the cause and other factors.

  • Viral meningitis: People often recover fully with appropriate care.
  • Bacterial meningitis: This condition can be life threatening and requires prompt treatment. The outlook depends on how quickly treatment starts, the person’s age and overall health, and the bacteria involved. Even with treatment, there can be lasting effects, such as brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disabilities.
  • Fungal and parasitic meningitis: The outlook depends on the person’s immune status and the specific pathogen but tends to be more favorable with early and appropriate treatment.

Does spinal meningitis affect you later in life?

Yes, spinal meningitis can affect people later in life, mainly if it results from bacterial infections, which are more likely to lead to long-term complications. Survivors of bacterial meningitis may experience lasting effects such as hearing loss, learning disabilities, memory difficulties, coordination problems, and seizures. The risk of long-term complications decreases with prompt and appropriate treatment.

Can you recover from spinal meningitis?

Recovery largely depends on the cause of the meningitis and the timeliness of treatment. Viral meningitis, the most common type, often allows for a full recovery without specific treatment other than supportive care. Recovery from bacterial meningitis is possible, especially with immediate treatment, but there may be lasting effects. Fungal and parasitic meningitis recovery rates vary depending on a person’s immune system and the effectiveness of treatment.

If a person exhibits any symptoms of meningitis, they should contact a doctor immediately, as the condition can rapidly progress and become life threatening.

Given the rapid progression of meningitis, early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for reducing the risk of serious complications or death.

Spinal meningitis is inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Viruses are the most common cause, but bacteria, fungal infections, and parasites can also be responsible.

Symptoms include fever, a severe headache, a stiff neck, and confusion. If a person experiences these symptoms, they need medical attention right away. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for ensuring a better outcome.