Meningitis is an acute inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, known collectively as the meninges. The most common symptoms are fever, headache, and neck stiffness. Other symptoms include confusion or altered consciousness, vomiting, and an inability to tolerate light or loud noises. Young children often exhibit only nonspecific symptoms, such as irritability, drowsiness, or poor feeding. 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.
The inflammation may be caused by infection with viruses, bacteria, or other microorganisms, and less commonly by certaindrugs. 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. A lumbar puncture can diagnose or exclude meningitis. A needle is inserted into the spinal canal to collect a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), that envelops the brain and spinal cord. The CSF is examined in a medical laboratory.
Some forms of meningitis are preventable by immunization with the meningococcal, mumps, pneumococcal, and Hib vaccines. Giving antibiotics to people with significant exposure to certain types of meningitis may also be useful. The first treatment in acute meningitis consists of promptly giving antibiotics and sometimes antiviral drugs. Corticosteroids can also be used to prevent complications from excessive inflammation. Meningitis can lead to serious long-term consequences such as deafness, epilepsy, hydrocephalus, or cognitive deficits, especially if not treated quickly.
Meningitis is typically caused by an infection with microorganisms. Most infections are due to viruses, with bacteria, fungi, and protozoa being the next most common causes. It may also result from various non-infectious causes. The term aseptic meningitis refers to cases of meningitis in which no bacterial infection can be demonstrated. This type of meningitis is usually caused by viruses but it may be due to bacterial infection that has already been partially treated, when bacteria disappear from the meninges, or pathogens infect a space adjacent to the meninges (e.g. sinusitis). Endocarditis (an infection of the heart valves which spreads small clusters of bacteria through the bloodstream) may cause aseptic meningitis. Aseptic meningitis may also result from infection with spirochetes, a group of bacteria that includes Treponemapallidum (the cause of syphilis) and Borrelia burgdorferi (known for causing Lyme disease). Meningitis may be encountered in cerebral malaria (malaria infecting the brain) or amoebic meningitis, meningitis due to infection with amoebae such as Naegleriafowleri, contracted from freshwater sources.
The types of bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis vary according to the infected individual's age group.
In premature babies and newborns up to three months old, common causes are group B streptococci (subtypes III which normally inhabit the vagina and are mainly a cause during the first week of life) and bacteria that normally inhabit the digestive tract such as Escherichia coli (carrying the K1 antigen). Listeria monocytogenes (serotype IVb) is transmitted by the mother before birth and may cause meningitis in the newborn.
Older children are more commonly affected by Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus) and Streptococcus pneumoniae (serotypes 6, 9, 14, 18 and 23) and those under five by Haemophilus influenzae type B (in countries that do not offer vaccination).
In adults, Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae together cause 80% of bacterial meningitis cases. Risk of infection with Listeria monocytogenes is increased in persons over 50 years old. The introduction of pneumococcal vaccine has lowered rates of pneumococcal meningitis in both children and adults.
Recent skull trauma potentially allows nasal cavity bacteria to enter the meningeal space. Similarly, devices in the brain and meninges, such as cerebral shunts, extraventricular drains or Ommaya reservoirs, carry an increased risk of meningitis. In these cases, the persons are more likely to be infected with Staphylococci, Pseudomonas, and other Gram-negative bacteria. These pathogens are also associated with meningitis in people with an impaired immune system. An infection in the head and neck area, such as otitis media or mastoiditis, can lead to meningitis in a small proportion of people. Recipients of cochlear implants for hearing loss are more at risk for pneumococcal meningitis.
Tuberculous meningitis, which is meningitis caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is more common in people from countries in which tuberculosis is endemic, but is also encountered in persons with immune problems, such as AIDS.
Recurrent bacterial meningitis may be caused by persisting anatomical defects, either congenital or acquired, or by disorders of the immune system. Anatomical defects allow continuity between the external environment and the nervous system. The most common cause of recurrent meningitis is a skull fracture, particularly fractures that affect the base of the skull or extend towards the sinuses and petrous pyramids. Approximately 59% of recurrent meningitis cases are due to such anatomical abnormalities, 36% are due to immune deficiencies (such as complement deficiency, which predisposes especially to recurrent meningococcal meningitis), and 5% are due to ongoing infections in areas adjacent to the meninges.
Viruses that cause meningitis include enteroviruses, herpes simplex virus (generally type 2, which produces most genital sores; less commonly type 1), varicella zoster virus(known for causing chickenpox and shingles), mumps virus, HIV, and LCMV. Mollaret's meningitis is a chronic recurrent form of herpes meningitis; it is thought to be caused by herpes simplex virus type 2.
There are a number of risk factors for fungal meningitis, including the use of immunosuppressants (such as after organ transplantation), HIV/AIDS, and the loss of immunity associated with aging. It is uncommon in those with a normal immune system but has occurred with medication contamination. Symptom onset is typically more gradual, with headaches and fever being present for at least a couple of weeks before diagnosis. The most common fungal meningitis is cryptococcal meningitis due to Cryptococcus neoformans. In Africa, cryptococcal meningitis is now the most common cause of meningitis in multiple studies, and it accounts for 20–25% of AIDS-related deaths in Africa. Other less common fungal pathogens which can cause meningitis include: Coccidioide simmitis, Histoplasma Capsulatum, Blastomyces Dermatitidis, and Candida species.
A parasitic cause is often assumed when there is a predominance of eosinophils (a type of white blood cell) in the CSF. The most common parasites implicated are Angiostrongylus cantonensis, Gnathostoma spinigerum, Schistosoma, as well as the conditions cysticercosis, toxocariasis, baylisascariasis, paragonimiasis, and a number of rarer infections and noninfective conditions.
Meningitis may occur as the result of several non-infectious causes: spread of cancer to the meninges (malignant or neoplastic meningitis) and certain drugs (mainly non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics and intravenous immunoglobulins). It may also be caused by several inflammatory conditions, such as sarcoidosis (which is then called neurosarcoidosis), connective tissue disorders such as systemic lupus erythematosus, and certain forms of vasculitis (inflammatory conditions of the blood vessel wall), such as Behçet's disease. Epidermoid cysts and dermoid cysts may cause meningitis by releasing irritant matter into the subarachnoid space. Rarely, migraine may cause meningitis, but this diagnosis is usually only made when other causes have been eliminated.
In adults, the most common symptom of meningitis is a severe headache, occurring in almost 90% of cases of bacterial meningitis, followed by nuchal rigidity (the inability to flex the neck forward passively due to increased neck muscle tone and stiffness). The classic triad of diagnostic signs consists of nuchal rigidity, sudden high fever, and altered mental status; however, all three features are present in only 44–46% of bacterial meningitis cases. If none of the three signs are present, acute meningitis is extremely unlikely. Other signs commonly associated with meningitis include photophobia (intolerance to bright light) and phonophobia (intolerance to loud noises). Small children often do not exhibit the aforementioned symptoms, and may only be irritable and look unwell. The fontanelle (the soft spot on the top of a baby's head) can bulge in infants aged up to 6 months. Other features that distinguish meningitis from less severe illnesses in young children are leg pain, cold extremities, and an abnormal skin color.
Nuchal rigidity occurs in 70% of bacterial meningitis in adults. Other signs include the presence of positive Kernig's sign or Brudziński sign. Kernig's sign is assessed with the person lying supine, with the hip and knee flexed to 90 degrees. In a person with a positive Kernig's sign, pain limits passive extension of the knee. A positive Brudzinski's sign occurs when flexion of the neck causes involuntary flexion of the knee and hip. Although Kernig's sign and Brudzinski's sign are both commonly used to screen for meningitis, the sensitivity of these tests is limited. They do, however, have very good specificity for meningitis: the signs rarely occur in other diseases. Another test, known as the "jolt accentuation maneuver" helps determine whether meningitis is present in those reporting fever and headache. A person is asked to rapidly rotate the head horizontally; if this does not make the headache worse, meningitis is unlikely.
Other problems can produce symptoms similar to those above, but from non-meningitic causes. This is called meningism or pseudomeningitis.
Meningitis caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis (known as "meningococcal meningitis") can be differentiated from meningitis with other causes by a rapidly spreading petechial rash, which may precede other symptoms. The rash consists of numerous small, irregular purple or red spots ("petechiae") on the trunk, lower extremities, mucous membranes, conjuctiva, and (occasionally) the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. The rash is typically non-blanching; the redness does not disappear when pressed with a finger or a glass tumbler. Although this rash is not necessarily present in meningococcal meningitis, it is relatively specific for the disease; it does, however, occasionally occur in meningitis due to other bacteria. Other clues on the cause of meningitis may be the skin signs of hand, foot and mouth disease and genital herpes, both of which are associated with various forms of viral meningitis.
Meningitis is potentially life-threatening and has a high mortality rate if untreated; delay in treatment has been associated with a poorer outcome. Thus, treatment with wide-spectrum antibiotics should not be delayed while confirmatory tests are being conducted. If meningococcal disease is suspected in primary care, guidelines recommend that benzylpenicillin be administered before transfer to hospital. Intravenous fluids should be administered if hypotension (low blood pressure) or shock are present. It is not clear whether intravenous fluid should be given routinely or whether this should be restricted. Given that meningitis can cause a number of early severe complications, regular medical review is recommended to identify these complications early and to admit the person to an intensive care unit if deemed necessary.
Mechanical ventilation may be needed if the level of consciousness is very low, or if there is evidence of respiratory failure. If there are signs of raised intracranial pressure, measures to monitor the pressure may be taken; this would allow the optimization of the cerebral perfusion pressure and various treatments to decrease the intracranial pressure with medication (e.g. mannitol). Seizures are treated with anticonvulsants. Hydrocephalus (obstructed flow of CSF) may require insertion of a temporary or long-term drainage device, such as a cerebral shunt.
Antibiotics: Empiric antibiotics
(Treatment without exact diagnosis) should be started immediately, even before the results of the lumbar puncture and CSF analysis are known. The choice of initial treatment depends largely on the kind of bacteria that cause meningitis in a particular place and population. For instance, in the United Kingdom empirical treatment consists of a third-generation cefalosporin such as cefotaxime or ceftriaxone. In the USA, where resistance to cefalosporins is increasingly found in streptococci, addition of vancomycin to the initial treatment is recommended. Chloramphenicol, either alone or in combination with ampicillin, however, appears to work equally well.
Empirical therapy may be chosen on the basis of the person's age, whether the infection was preceded by a head injury, whether the person has undergone recent neurosurgery and whether or not a cerebral shunt is present. In young children and those over 50 years of age, as well as those who are immunocompromised, the addition of ampicillin is recommended to cover Listeria monocytogenes. Once the Gram stain results become available, and the broad type of bacterial cause is known, it may be possible to change the antibiotics to those likely to deal with the presumed group of pathogens. The results of the CSF culture generally take longer to become available (24–48 hours). Once they do, empiric therapy may be switched to specific antibiotic therapy targeted to the specific causative organism and its sensitivities to antibiotics. For an antibiotic to be effective in meningitis it must not only be active against the pathogenic bacterium but also reach the meninges in adequate quantities; some antibiotics have inadequate penetrance and therefore have little use in meningitis. Most of the antibiotics used in meningitis have not been tested directly on people with meningitis in clinical trials. Rather, the relevant knowledge has mostly derived from laboratory studies in rabbits. Tuberculous meningitis requires prolonged treatment with antibiotics. While tuberculosis of the lungs is typically treated for six months, those with tuberculous meningitis are typically treated for a year or longer.
Additional treatment with corticosteroids (usually dexamethasone) has shown some benefits, such as a reduction of hearing loss, and better short term neurological outcomesin adolescents and adults from high-income countries with low rates of HIV. Some research has found reduced rates of death while other research has not. They also appear to be beneficial in those with tuberculosis meningitis, at least in those who are HIV negative.
Professional guidelines therefore recommend the commencement of dexamethasone or a similar corticosteroid just before the first dose of antibiotics is given, and continued for four days. Given that most of the benefit of the treatment is confined to those with pneumococcal meningitis, some guidelines suggest that dexamethasone be discontinued if another cause for meningitis is identified. The likely mechanism is suppression of overactive inflammation.
Additional treatment with corticosteroids have a different role in children than in adults. Though the benefit of corticosteroids has been demonstrated in adults as well as in children from high-income countries, their use in children from low-income countries is not supported by the evidence; the reason for this discrepancy is not clear. Even in high-income countries, the benefit of corticosteroids is only seen when they are given prior to the first dose of antibiotics, and is greatest in cases of H. influenzae meningitis,the incidence of which has decreased dramatically since the introduction of the Hib vaccine. Thus, corticosteroids are recommended in the treatment of pediatric meningitis if the cause is H. influenzae, and only if given prior to the first dose of antibiotics; other uses are controversial.
Viral meningitis typically only requires supportive therapy; most viruses responsible for causing meningitis are not amenable to specific treatment. Viral meningitis tends to run a more benign course than bacterial meningitis. Herpes simplex virus and varicella zoster virus may respond to treatment with antiviral drugs such as aciclovir, but there are no clinical trials that have specifically addressed whether this treatment is effective. Mild cases of viral meningitis can be treated at home with conservative measures such as fluid, bedrest, and analgesics.
Fungal meningitis, such as cryptococcal meningitis, is treated with long courses of high dose antifungals, such as amphotericin B and flucytosine. Raised intracranial pressure is common in fungal meningitis, and frequent (ideally daily) lumbar punctures to relieve the pressure are recommended, or alternatively a lumbar drain.