Making a Diagnosis
Early diagnosis and treatment of meningitis are very important.
Meningitis is usually diagnosed by laboratory tests of spinal fluid obtained with a spinal tap. A spinal tap is when a needle is inserted into an area in the lower back where fluid in the spinal canal is readily accessible.
For bacterial meningitis, identification of the type of bacteria responsible is important for selection of correct antibiotics. The specific cause of viral meningitis can be determined by tests that identify the virus in specimens collected from the patient, but these tests are rarely done.
(Click Meningitis Diagnosis for more information.)
How Is Meningitis Treated?
Bacterial meningitis has a high death rate if left untreated. Therefore, meningitis requires immediate medical attention.
Bacterial meningitis can be treated with a number of effective antibiotics. It is important, however, that treatment be started early in the course of the disease. Appropriate antibiotic treatment of most common types of bacterial meningitis should reduce the risk of dying from meningitis to below 15 percent, although the risk is higher among the elderly.
No specific treatment for viral meningitis exists at this time. Most patients completely recover on their own. Doctors often will recommend bed rest, plenty of fluids, and medicine to relieve fever and headache.
(Click Meningitis Treatment for more information.)
Transmission of Meningitis
Some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious and can be spread through contact with:
- Nasal discharge
- Respiratory and throat secretions (often spread through kissing, coughing, or sharing drinking glasses, eating utensils, or such personal items as toothbrushes, lipstick, or cigarettes).
For example, people at a day care center, in a classroom, or sharing a household with an infected person can become infected. College students living in dormitories -- in particular, college freshmen -- have a higher risk of contracting meningococcal meningitis than college students overall.
Children who do not have access to childhood vaccines are at increased risk of developing certain types of bacterial meningitis.