Long-Term Effects of Meningitis

Sometimes it can produce complications

Physical therapy is often needed after meningitis recovery

Getty Images / Nicola Katie

Meningitis usually improves when treated in a timely manner, but it can cause long-term effects and complications. Viral and bacterial infections are the most common causes of meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis is more dangerous and more likely to cause persistent effects than other types of meningitis. However, all types of meningitis can become severe and life-threatening, potentially producing lasting consequences. 

Meningitis is an inflammatory condition of the meninges and the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that usually causes head pain, fevers, and fatigue. Seizures, neurological deficits, and systemic effects (such as sepsis or organ failure) can occur with severe meningitis.

The condition can result from infections, inflammatory disease, or as a side effect of certain medical treatments (such as brain radiation). 

Long-Term Effects of Meningitis 

Severe meningitis can result in prolonged effects after the acute inflammation or infection has resolved. Signs that the condition will cause long-term effects can begin during the acute phase. 

An intense or prolonged bout of meningitis is more likely to produce lasting consequences than a mild case. Delayed treatment or underlying medical illness can also increase the risk of complications.

Persistent effects of meningitis can include: 

  • Fatigue 
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Headaches 
  • Depression
  • Photophobia (discomfort when looking at light)
  • Dizziness and impaired balance and coordination
  • Behavioral, learning, memory, or intellectual deficits

Severe cases associated with encephalitis can lead to impaired balance and coordination, vision changes, motor weakness, or incontinence after the acute phase has resolved.

Some long-term effects of meningitis might begin to become apparent during the acute phase of the condition due to brain or nerve damage—and these symptoms often persist.

The nerves that control hearing can be damaged by infectious meningitis, leading to permanent hearing loss. This complication is associated with severe cases of viral meningitis, and it can occur with bacterial meningitis as well.

Hearing may be impaired during the acute phase of the infection. Months after your infection resolves, your healthcare provider may examine your hearing to determine whether you have persistent hearing loss. 

Seizures can occur due to inflammation or infection in or near the brain. Young children can also have meningitis-associated febrile seizures (seizures associated with a high fever). After resolution of meningitis, seizures can resolve, but there is a risk of persistent seizures that may require continued maintenance control with anti-epilepsy drugs (AEDs).

These effects can remain for years after the inflammation or infection of meningitis resolves, but they may partially or fully improve gradually over time.

Complications 

The long-term effects of meningitis are more likely to occur when the acute phase is associated with complications, as these complications can cause brain damage. Complications generally cause profound symptoms during the acute phase—including confusion, difficulty breathing, and loss of consciousness. These health issues require prompt medical treatment.

Hydrocephalus

Severe meningitis can lead to extensive inflammation, potentially obstructing the flow of CSF in the brain. This may result in fluid accumulation in the brain, which is described as hydrocephalus.

Sometimes hydrocephalus places pressure on the brain and can be life-threatening. Mild hydrocephalus can be treated with medication, and severe cases must be treated with an invasive procedure for the removal of fluid.

This complication can occur with any type of meningitis, but it is less common with viral meningitis or noninfectious meningitis than with other types. Hydrocephalus may occur during the acute phase of meningitis, and the risk diminishes as the condition starts to resolve and the inflammation improves. 

However, some people have persistent problems with hydrocephalus that requires placement of a ventricular shunt so that excess fluid can be removed from around the brain.

Encephalitis

Sometimes meningitis can spread to the brain. Encephalitis is inflammation or an infection of the brain, and it is more dangerous than meningitis, often leading to permanent brain damage. 

Viral and noninfectious meningitis do not usually progress to encephalitis. Bacterial meningitis can lead to encephalitis. And fungal, parasitic, and amebic meningitis usually involve encephalitis. 

Encephalitis poses a high risk of brain damage and/or stroke. It can lead to prolonged neurological problems. including cognitive deficits, personality changes, impaired vision, and seizures.

Encephalitis is life-threatening. It can fully resolve with treatment, but if you are at a high risk of infectious or noninfectious forms of meningitis and encephalitis, it is important to take steps to avoid recurrence.

Septicemia and Sepsis

Infections that cause meningitis can spread to the bloodstream, causing septicemia. Sepsis is a severe inflammatory reaction of the body that can result from systemic infection. These conditions can be fatal and are more common with bacterial meningitis than with other types. 

Acute effects of sepsis and septicemia include fevers, hypothermia (low body temperature), blood pressure irregularities, breathing difficulties, kidney failure, heart rhythm irregularities, delirium, and loss of consciousness.

Limb loss is one of the serious complications of sepsis and septicemia in meningitis—affecting between 4% and 8% of children and 3.4% of adolescents and adults who have been infected with Neisseria meningitidis, a type of bacterial meningitis.

This complication can occur when a blood clot, which can develop due to septicemia, blocks a blood vessel in a limb—leading to necrosis (tissue death) that must be treated with amputation.

These issues are managed with a combination of close intensive care (such as respiratory support and blood pressure management), antimicrobials, and anti-inflammatories.

Prevention 

Prevention of long-term effects of meningitis involves reducing the risk of meningitis, getting prompt treatment if you develop early signs and symptoms of meningitis, and getting help with your recovery after the acute phase of meningitis resolves. 

Avoiding Infection

Many of the infectious organisms that most commonly cause meningitis can be prevented with vaccination. You can reduce your risk of meningitis and its long-term complications by staying up to date on your recommended immunizations. These include vaccines for mumps, measles, chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae, pneumococcus, and meningococcus.

Meningococcal vaccine specifically aims to prevent bacterial meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitidis. A two-dose series is recommended for all children at ages 11 to 12 years for the first dose and a booster at age 16. It is also recommended for children and adults who are at greater risk.

An additional MenB vaccine may be given as further protection against one more serotype. All teens and young adults may get the vaccine (ages 16 through 23), as well as children age 10 and up and adults who have an increased risk of meningococcal disease.

You can also avoid infections by maintaining hygienic habits, including handwashing, avoiding foods that could be contaminated, and staying away from close contact with people who have contagious infections.

Special Precautions

When you are at risk of meningitis due to an underlying condition, it is even more important to reduce your exposure to infectious organisms that can cause meningitis:

  • If you have an inflammatory condition that's associated with noninfectious meningitis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, managing your condition can reduce the likelihood of developing meningitis.
  • If your immune system is suppressed, either due to a medical condition or medication, take extra precautions as directed by your healthcare provider to protect yourself from exposure to infections. This can include avoiding crowds, hospitals, and schools.
  • If you have a ventricular shunt, it is vital to avoid contamination.
  • If you are healing from a brain injury or procedure, be sure to maintain precautions to avoid infections until you have fully healed. This includes keeping the wound clean and staying away from potential contamination.

Reducing the Risk of Complications

If you develop symptoms of meningitis, it’s vital to get early medical attention. Timely diagnosis and treatment with antimicrobials, anti-inflammatories, or any needed treatments will prevent the infection from progressing. Similarly, noninfectious meningitis can be treated more effectively at an early stage.

Steps to prevent complications include:

  • Seizure prevention and treatment during the acute stage of meningitis can help reduce the chances of a post-meningitis seizure disorder.
  • Management of inflammation and monitoring changes in intracranial pressure during the early stage can prevent long-term problems with hydrocephalus.
  • Systemic effects, such as blood clots and sepsis, must be treated effectively to reduce the risk of permanent neurological issues or death from meningitis.

A Word From Verywell

Prompt treatment for meningitis can minimize the risk of long-term effects. If you are recovering from meningitis, it is important to be aware of the long-term effects so you can recognize the symptoms you need to look out for and get treatment right away.

You may need interventions like rehabilitation and physical therapy as you recover, and you can begin to see improvements over time.

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9 Sources
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