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What Is It? & Symptoms

Monday, Aug. 27, 2007; 7:46 PM

Copyright Harvard Health Publications 2007

What Is It?

Table of Contents

Meningitis is a viral or bacterial infection of the coverings (meninges) of the brain and spinal cord. Viral or “aseptic” meningitis, which is the most common type, usually is caused by a group of viruses called enteroviruses. Anyone can get viral meningitis, but it occurs most often in children, and goes away on its own after seven to 10 days. In the United States, between 25,000 and 50,000 people are hospitalized with viral meningitis each year. Bacterial meningitis can occur in adults or children, and is fatal if not treated promptly. In the United States, between 2,400 and 3,000 cases of bacterial meningitis occur every year.


The symptoms of meningitis vary, but often include:

  • Headache

  • Fever

  • Stiff neck

Other symptoms may include:

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Drowsiness

  • Confusion

Symptoms may be milder in cases of viral meningitis, while in cases of bacterial meningitis, symptoms may come on quite suddenly. In very young children, symptoms may be particularly hard to detect. Babies with meningitis may be less active, vomit, refuse to eat or be irritable. A person in later stages of bacterial meningitis may have seizures and lose consciousness (pass out).

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