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Recognizing Brain Infection: Meningitis and Encephalitis

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain itself.

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Infectious causes of meningitis and encephalitis include: viruses, bacteria, fungus, and parasites. For some individuals, environmental exposure (such as a parasite), recent travel, or an immunocompromised state (such as HIV, diabetes, steroids, chemotherapy treatment) are important risk factors. There are also non-infectious causes such as: autoimmune/rheumatological diseases, cancer, injuries, and certain medications.

Anyone—from infants to older adults—can get meningitis or encephalitis.

What are the signs and symptoms?


The hallmark signs of meningitis include some or all of the following:

  • sudden fever
  • severe headache
  • nausea or vomiting
  • double vision
  • drowsiness
  • sensitivity to bright light
  • a stiff neck

Meningitis often appears with flu-like symptoms that develop over 1–2 days. Distinctive rashes are typically seen in some forms of the disease. Meningococcal meningitis may be associated with kidney and adrenal gland failure and shock.


Encephalitis can be characterized by:

  • fever
  • seizures
  • change in behavior
  • confusion and disorientation

Individuals with encephalitis often show mild flu-like symptoms. In more severe cases, people may experience problems with speech or hearing, double vision, hallucinations, personality changes, and loss of consciousness. Other severe complications include: loss of sensation in some parts of the body, muscle weakness, partial paralysis in the arms and legs, impaired judgment, seizures, and memory

Important signs of meningitis or encephalitis to watch for in an infant include:

  • fever
  • lethargy
  • not waking for feedings
  • vomiting
  • body stiffness
  • unexplained/unusual irritability
  • a full or bulging fontanel (the soft spot on the top of the head)

People who are suspected of having meningitis or encephalitis should receive immediate, aggressive medical treatment as both diseases can progress quickly and have the potential to cause severe, irreversible neurological damage.

Guard Against Infection

-Stay up-to-date on your vaccines. The most effective way to prevent meningitis is to get vaccinated against the disease. There are currently two vaccines available in the U.S. that protect against most types of bacterial meningitis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting vaccinated against meningitis at age 11 or 12, followed by a booster shot at age 16 to 18. The CDC also recommends the vaccination for those headed to college, entering the military, traveling, or planning to live in a country where bacterial meningitis is common. Getting vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox can help prevent diseases that can lead to viral meningitis.

-Don’t share personal items and keep your distance from infected people. Meningitis can be contracted when you come in contact with respiratory or throat secretions—saliva, sputum, nasal mucus—of someone who is infected, either through kissing, sharing personal items, or through coughs and sneezes.

– Wash your hands often. Wash your hands vigorously, especially after you use the bathroom, change a diaper, spend time in a crowded place, and cough or blow your nose.

– Protect against mosquitoes and ticks. Use insect repellents and wear fullsleeve shirts and pants when you’re outside. Keep insects out of your home. Empty all standing water from your yard.

Source Info: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and Mayo Clinic
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