Meningitis – Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

The brain and spinal cord are protected by fluid and membranes. Under certain conditions, these membranes may be come inflamed and swell and this is known as meningitis. Most cases of meningitis are caused by an infection, however other non-infectious causes may be due to certain drugs and other diseases. The surrounding cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is also involved in meningitis and may increase the pressure on the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis may be life threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

Signs and Symptoms of Meningitis

The main symptoms of meningitis include :

  • High fever
  • Neck stiffness
  • Severe headache

Other symptoms that may also be present includes :

  • Confusion
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Drowsiness and sleepiness
  • Light sensitivity
  • Loss of appetite

Causes of Meningitis


A viral infection is the most common cause of meningitis. Apart from the typical symptoms of meningitis, other signs and symptoms like a skin rash, joint pain and sore throat may also be present in viral meningitis. It may be linked to other viral infections like mumps and shingles.

Bacterial meningitis is an acute infection of the layers and fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The bacteria often enters the body at other sites and spreads to the meninges. Acute bacterial meningitis can be very fast acting and potentially fatal. The increase in multi-drug resistant bacteria has raised concerns about the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating this condition.

Fungi were not a common cause of meningitis but with the HIV/AIDS problem in South Africa, fungal meningitis is on the rise. It doe not only occur in HIV/AIDS patients and can affect any person with any form of immune deficiency. Fungal meningitis is usually a slow-developing infection compared to viral or bacterial meningitis but can be just as dangerous.

Non-Infectious Meningitis

Many drugs, toxins and certain diseases can cause inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membranes. The most common non-infectious causes of meningitis include :

  • Drugs like NSAID’s, chemotherapeutic agents or anti-rejection drugs for organ transplants.
  • Autoimmune diseases like SLE (lupus)
  • Cancer that spreads to the brain, spinal cord or meninges.

Outbreaks of Meningitis

Every now and then, the media reports an outbreak of meningitis in certain districts and/or cities. These are usually cases of viral meningitis and the biggest scare involves the spread among schoolchildren. Meningitis outbreaks cause much panic in the general population, especially among parents, and it is important to consult with a medical practitioner if you are in doubt about any of your signs and symptoms. However, restricting contact with others or imposing a quarantine on your healthy child is not necessary unless the local health authorities advise these measures.

Diagnosis of Meningitis

Apart from identifying cases of meningitis by the signs and symptoms above, your doctor may also request a CT scan. This will allow your doctor to see the extent of swelling. A lumbar puncture extracts cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which can then be tested for the presence of microbes and proteins, which will indicate an infection or inflammtion.

Treatment of Meningitis

Treatment depends on the cause of meningitis. IV antibiotics may be necessary for acute bacterial meningitis while antivirals and antifungals may be used for viral and fungal meningitis respectively. Milder cases of viral meningitis may just require bed rest, a healthy diet, plenty of liquids and drugs to control the pain and fever. In cases of non-infectious causes of meningitis, your doctor will direct the treatment at the causative factor.