Spinal Meningitis: Overview and More

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Spinal meningitis is the inflammation of tissues, called meninges, that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. This condition usually stems from an infection and leads to symptoms such as a stiff neck, fever, and severe headache. There are vaccines to prevent some types of spinal meningitis.

In some cases, spinal meningitis can resolve on its own. However, it can also be life-threatening and require antibiotics, hospitalization, or other medical treatment.

This article reviews spinal meningitis, including the different types, symptoms, causes, diagnoses, and treatments.

Woman with headache talking to doctor about meningitis

Charday Penn / Getty Images

Types of Spinal Meningitis

The most common type of spinal meningitis is viral meningitis. Other types are bacterial, parasitic, fungal, amoebic, and noninfectious.

Viral Meningitis

A virus causes the most common type of meningitis. Most people who get viral meningitis recover on their own without treatment within seven to 10 days.

Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is caused by bacteria. It is the most deadly form.

After infection, death can occur rapidly, sometimes as quickly as just a few hours. Those who recover may have residual disabilities, including brain damage, learning disabilities, or hearing loss.

Parasitic Meningitis

Parasitic meningitis is much less common than viral or bacterial meningitis. It more commonly affects animals than people. In humans, it usually is caused by eating contaminated food or an infected animal.

Fungal Meningitis

The inhalation of fungal spores causes fungal meningitis. Treatment involves antifungal medications. People with compromised immune systems are at greater risk. However, fungal meningitis is very rare.

Amoebic Meningitis

Amoebic meningitis is a rare brain infection that is almost always fatal. There are usually fewer than eight cases per year in the United States. This type is caused by a specific kind of amoeba (a single-celled organism) that travels into the nose while swimming.

Noninfectious Meningitis

Noninfectious meningitis can result from medical conditions such as cancer, the autoimmune disease lupus, or brain injuries. It causes inflammation that is not infectious.

How to Know What Type You Have

It's impossible to know what type of meningitis someone has without diagnostic testing. Contact your healthcare provider right away if you or a loved one is experiencing any spinal meningitis symptoms.

Spinal Meningitis Symptoms

Symptoms of spinal meningitis may include:

  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Neck stiffness
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Confusion or irritability
  • Drowsiness or weakness
  • Stroke
  • Back pain
  • Rashes

Additional symptoms that may be seen in babies and small children include:

  • Head swelling from fluid buildup
  • Irritability and crying
  • Refusing to eat
  • Rapid grunting
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Floppy arms
  • Bulging fontanelle (soft spot on the top of the head)

Causes

There are many different causes of spinal meningitis, depending on the type.

  • Viral meningitis: Viruses, most commonly non-polio enteroviruses, cause viral meningitis.
  • Bacterial meningitis: Various kinds of bacteria, such as Streptococcus, cause bacterial meningitis.
  • Parasitic meningitis: Eating food or an animal infected with parasites causes parasitic meningitis.
  • Fungal meningitis: Inhaling fungal spores causes fungal meningitis.
  • Amoebic meningitis: An amoeba called Naegleria fowleri causes amoebic meningitis.
  • Noninfectious meningitis: Brain inflammation that stems from an illness or brain injury causes this type, not an outside infection.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing spinal meningitis usually starts with a physical exam in which your healthcare provider will collect a medical history and ask about your symptoms.

Other diagnostic tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): A needle is inserted in the lower spine to collect cerebrospinal fluid.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG): A noninvasive test that records electrical activity in the brain.

Diagnostic imaging of the brain and spine is also used to diagnose meningitis, and can include:

Treatment

Treatment options depend on the type of meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis requires starting antibiotics as soon as possible. There are also vaccines available to prevent you from getting bacterial meningitis.

Those with viral meningitis, the most common type, usually recover without treatment within one to two weeks. Pain management therapies are often used to manage headache symptoms. Antibiotics do not help with a viral infection.

Treatment for fungal meningitis requires antifungal medications.

There are no specific treatments for parasitic meningitis. Pain medications and medication to reduce the body's reaction to the parasites are sometimes used.

There are a few medications to treat amoebic meningitis. However, almost all infections are still fatal, and it is unclear if the drugs are effective as there are so few cases every year.

Hospitalization for Spinal Meningitis

When someone with meningitis becomes severely ill or are at risk for developing severe illness, a hospital stay is often essential to prevent additional complications.

Prognosis

The prognosis for most people who get meningitis is positive. However, it is very dependent on the type of meningitis someone has. Early treatment is the best way to ensure a good prognosis.

For example, bacterial meningitis can be deadly within days after the start of symptoms. Without antibiotic treatment, the prognosis is fatal. In addition, delayed treatment increases the risk of permanent brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disabilities.

The rarest type, amoebic meningitis, is usually fatal even with treatment. Fortunately, very few people get this type of meningitis.

Summary

Spinal meningitis is inflammation of the brain and spinal cord due to an infection. Types of meningitis include viral, bacterial, fungal, parasitic, amoebic, and noninfectious. Symptoms typically include headache, fever, and neck stiffness.

Treatment depends on the type of meningitis but can include antibiotics, pain relievers, or hospitalization. Sometimes meningitis can resolve on its own.

A Word From Verywell

Spinal meningitis can be a scary and uncomfortable condition to have, and you may find yourself nervous about how and when you will recover. Remember that early treatment is essential. If you or a loved one starts exhibiting symptoms of meningitis, such as a stiff neck, fever, and headache, contact your healthcare provider right away.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Meningitis.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Viral meningitis.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bacterial meningitis.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parasitic meningitis.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fungal meningitis.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Amebic meningitis.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Non-infectious meningitis.

  8. MeningitisNow. Signs and symptoms of meningitis in babies and toddlers.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parasitic meningitis.

By Sarah Jividen, RN
Sarah Jividen, RN, BSN, is a freelance healthcare journalist and content marketing writer at Health Writing Solutions, LLC. She has over a decade of direct patient care experience working as a registered nurse specializing in neurotrauma, stroke, and the emergency room.