Viruses, bacteria, fungi are common causes of meningitis

Meningitis is caused by an infection that results in inflammation (swelling) of the membrane or lining of the brain and spinal cord. There are different types of infection, including viral, bacterial and fungal. Viral infection is the most common and generally the least severe. Certain viruses, called non-polio enteroviruses, such as herpes, measles, mumps or influenza (flu), may lead to viral meningitis. There is no vaccine for viral meningitis and the condition usually gets better on its own.

Bacterial meningitis is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate treatment. It is caused by bacteria, such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, that enters the bloodstream and goes to the brain and spinal cord. The infection can easily spread from one person to another and is more common in people living in close quarters, such as a college dormitory or military barracks. It can also be passed through food and from mother to baby during birth. It is sometimes caused by an ear infection or a skull fracture. Bacterial meningitis is preventable with vaccination.

Fungal meningitis is very rare and more often affects people with weakened immune systems, such as a person with HIV or cancer. It is caused by different types of fungus that are found in certain areas and types of soil contaminated with bird or bat droppings. Taking certain medications that weaken the immune system may also lead to fungal meningitis. There is no vaccine for this type of meningitis.

Symptoms and diagnosis of meningitis

Symptoms for different types of meningitis are similar. Mostly commonly, a person may experience:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating
  • Nausea
  • Stiff neck
  • Vomiting

In order to diagnose meningitis, your doctor will order a blood sample and may also want a sample of the fluid surrounding your spinal cord. If you are diagnosed with meningitis, treatment will depend on the type of infection you have. There is no specific treatment for viral meningitis but you may benefit from an antiviral medicine, depending on what type of virus has caused the infection. Bacterial meningitis must be treated quickly with antibiotics and fungal meningitis may be treated with antifungal medication.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.