Meningitis is inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, known collectively as the meninges. The inflammation may be caused by infection with viruses, bacteria, or other microorganisms, and less commonly by certain drugs. Meningitis can be life-threatening because of the inflammation's proximity to the brain and spinal cord; therefore the condition is classified as a medical emergency.
The most common symptoms of meningitis are headache and neck stiffness associated with fever, confusion or altered consciousness, vomiting, and an inability to tolerate light (photophobia) or loud noises (phonophobia). Sometimes, especially in small children, only nonspecific symptoms may be present, such as irritability and drowsiness. If a rash is present, it may indicate a particular cause of meningitis; for instance, meningitis caused by meningococcal bacteria may be accompanied by a characteristic rash.
A lumbar puncture may be used to diagnose or exclude meningitis. This involves inserting a needle into the spinal canal to extract a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the fluid that envelops the brain and spinal cord. The CSF is then examined in a medical laboratory. The usual treatment for meningitis is the prompt application of antibiotics and sometimes antiviral drugs. In some situations, corticosteroid drugs can also be used to prevent complications from overactive inflammation. Meningitis can lead to serious long-term consequences such as deafness, epilepsy, hydrocephalus and cognitive deficits, especially if not treated quickly. Some forms of meningitis (such as those associated with meningococci, Haemophilus influenzae type B, pneumococci or mumps virus infections) may be prevented by immunization.