Learn more about symptoms and causes of meningitis

Every year, more than one million people around the globe develop meningitis, an infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Left untreated, this illness can cause serious complications and even death. Learn about who’s most at-risk, as well as the telltale symptoms of this dangerous illness.

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The Different Forms of Meningitis

Meningitis can be caused by a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection. In the United States, most cases are the result of a virus and cause inflammation of the meninges, the protective membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord.

Although the condition is most common in infants and college-age students, it can occur in anyone at any age.

In the United States, viral meningitis is usually caused by a group of viruses known as enteroviruses, which are most common in late summer and early fall. Viral meningitis also frequently occurs alongside other illnesses, such as West Nile virus, HIV, mumps, and herpes simplex virus. Most cases are mild and will eventually clear up on their own.

On the other hand, bacterial meningitis is life threatening. It can be caused by bacterial responsible for ear infections, sinus infections, upper respiratory infections, as well as Listeria, the foodborne bacteria found in luncheon meat and unpasteurized cheese.

Fungal meningitis is rare but life threatening. It is most commonly found in people with compromised immune systems.

Meningitis is most likely in:

  • Children younger than five years of age
  • Pregnant women
  • People who live in group settings, such as college dorms, boarding schools, and military facilities
  • People with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS or diabetes, who take immunosuppressant drugs, or who are alcoholics
  • People who have not been vaccinated against the disease


Meningitis Symptoms to Watch for

Meningitis symptoms emerge suddenly, often within just several hours or days. Many symptoms mimic those of the flu, and some people may assume that’s what they have. In people older than two years of age, it can cause:

  • Stiff neck
  • Headache (often severe)
  • Sudden high fever
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Drowsiness
  • Seizures
  • Lack of appetite
  • Rash

In infants, symptoms of meningitis include:

  • High fever
  • Constant crying
  • Drowsiness
  • Sluggishness
  • Stiff neck or body
  • A bulge or bump on top of the head
  • Failure to feed

If you or a loved one experience these symptoms — particularly a stiff neck, fever, and headache — seek medical attention immediately.

The viral form of the disease is usually treated with fluids, rest, and over-the-counter pain medications. Antibiotics, typically administered intravenously, are the treatment of choice for bacterial meningitis. Treatment is crucial because bacterial meningitis can be fatal, as well as cause long-term complications such as brain damage, hearing loss, kidney failure, and seizures.

Your doctor can give you more details about meningitis, including information about vaccinations that can help protect against this disease.

About Infectious Diseases

If you have a disease caused by bacteria, fungi, parasite, or virus, the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases can help. Our team of experts is specially trained in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, including of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, illnesses caused by international travel, and more. We research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods. Visit our website to find an expert near you.