What Is It?

Meningitis is a viral or bacterial infection of the coverings (meninges) of the brain and spinal cord. Viral meningitis usually is caused by a group of viruses called enteroviruses. It commonly occurs in children, and goes away on its own after seven to 10 days. Bacterial meningitis can occur in adults or children, and is fatal if not treated promptly. In the United States, between 2,400 and 3,000 cases of bacterial meningitis occur every year.


The symptoms of meningitis vary, but often include:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Stiff neck

Other symptoms may include:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion

Symptoms may be milder in cases of viral meningitis, while in cases of bacterial meningitis, symptoms may come on quite suddenly. In very young children, symptoms may be particularly hard to detect. Babies with meningitis may be less active, vomit, refuse to eat or be irritable. A person in later stages of bacterial meningitis may have seizures and lose consciousness (pass out).


Meningitis is diagnosed by testing some of the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord for the presence of disease-causing bacteria or infection-fighting cells. The fluid is removed from the spinal cord for testing in a procedure known as a spinal tap or lumbar puncture.

Expected Duration

Viral meningitis tends to get better on its own in seven to 10 days. In contrast, if bacterial meningitis is not diagnosed and treated early, permanent disability or death can result. The length of time that medication is needed for bacterial meningitis depends on the person’s age, response to the medication and other factors.


The bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis are found in bodily fluids, such as saliva and mucus, and are spread by direct contact. Some people carry the germs in their nose and throat and can pass them on to other people, even though these “carriers” are not sick. If you are in close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, you may be given antibiotic therapy to prevent you from getting the disease.

In children, bacterial meningitis most commonly is caused by three types of bacteria: Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae or Neisseria meningitidis. Vaccines to protect against S. pneumoniae and H. influenzae type b (Hib) are available and have dramatically reduced the number of meningitis cases caused by these bacteria. A vaccine against N. meningitidis is available, but it has not been shown to be effective in children younger than 2 years.

College students overall have a lower rate of bacterial meningitis than people of similar ages who are not in college. However, freshmen living in dormitories have higher rates. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that college students be vaccinated against N. meningitidis. This vaccine also may be useful for travelers to countries that experience meningitis outbreaks.

There are also vaccines against some other types of bacteria that cause meningitis, but these are used mostly in older people or people with chronic medical conditions that could put them at high risk of contracting the disease.

There is no vaccine for viral meningitis.


Viral meningitis is treated much like the flu: Get bed rest, drink plenty of fluids, and you should recover in a week to 10 days. Bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency and should be treated as soon as possible in a hospital setting.

When To Call A Professional

If your child is exhibiting symptoms of meningitis, contact your doctor immediately.


For people with viral meningitis, the prognosis is generally excellent.

The prognosis for bacterial meningitis depends on the person’s age, which bacterium is causing the disease, and how early the disease was diagnosed. The fatality rate for this disease can be as high as 10 percent, and a larger percentage of survivors have long-term consequences, such as hearing loss or neurological complications.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised:

Diseases and Conditions Center

  A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.