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NINDS Meningitis and Encephalitis Information Page

Synonym(s):  Meningitis, Encephalitis
Condensed from Meningitis and Encephalitis Fact Sheet

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What are 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. Causes of encephalitis and meningitis include viruses, bacteria, fungus, and parasites. Anyone can get encephalitis or meningitis.Inflammation from encephalitis and meningitis produce a wide range of symptoms.  Symptoms of encephalitis include sudden fever, headache, vomiting, heightened sensitivity to light, stiff neck and back, confusion and impaired judgment, drowsiness, weak muscles, a clumsy and unsteady gait, and irritability. In more severe cases, people may have problems with speech or hearing, vision problems, and hallucinations. Symptoms that might require emergency treatment include loss of consciousness, seizures, muscle weakness, or sudden severe dementia.

Symptoms of meningitis, which may appear suddenly, often include high fever, severe and persistent headache, stiff neck, nausea, sensitivity to bright light, and vomiting. Changes in behavior such as confusion, sleepiness, and difficulty waking up may also occur. In infants, symptoms of meningitis or encephalitis may include fever, vomiting, lethargy, body stiffness, unexplained irritability, and a full or bulging fontanel (the soft spot on the top of the head). Anyone experiencing symptoms of meningitis or encephalitis should see a doctor immediately.

Is there any treatment?

Anyone experiencing symptoms of meningitis or encephalitis should see a doctor immediately. Antibiotics for most types of meningitis can greatly reduce the risk of dying from the disease. Antiviral medications may be prescribed for viral encephalitis or other severe viral infections.Anticonvulsants are used to prevent or treat seizures. Corticosteroidd rugs can reduce brain swelling and inflammation. Over-the-counter medications may be used for fever and headache. Individuals with encephalitis or bacterial meningitis are usually hospitalized for treatment. Affected individuals with breathing difficulties may require artificial respiration.

What is the prognosis?

The prognosis for for people with encephalitis or meningitis varies. Some cases are mild, short and relatively benign and individuals have full recovery, although the process may be slow. Individuals who experience mild symptoms may recover in 2-4 weeks. Other cases are severe, and permanent impairment or death is possible. The acute phase of encephalitis may last for 1 to 2 weeks, with gradual or sudden resolution of fever and neurological symptoms. Individuals treated for bacterial meningitis typically show some relief within 48-72 hours. Neurological symptoms may require many months before full recovery. With early diagnosis and prompt treatment, most individuals recover from meningitis. However, in some cases, the disease progresses so rapidly that death occurs during the first 48 hours, despite early treatment.

What research is being done?

The mission of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) is to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease. The NINDS is a component of the National Institutes of Health, the leading supporter of biomedical research in the world. Current research efforts include gaining a better understanding of  how the central nervous system responds to inflammation in the brain, as well as to better understand the molecular mechanisms involved in the protection and disruption of the blood-brain barrier, which could lead to the development of new treatments for several neuroinflammatory diseases such as meningitis and encephalitis.

More info

NIH Patient Recruitment for Meningitis and Encephalitis Clinical Trials


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Meningitis Foundation of America, Inc.
P.O. Box 1818
El Mirage, AZ 85335
Tel: 480-270-2652

National Meningitis Association
P.O. Box 60143
Ft. Myers, FL 33906
Tel: 866-366-3662
Fax: 877-703-6096

NIAID Office of Communications and Government Relations
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
5601 Fishers Lane, MSC 9806
Bethesda, MD 20892
Tel: 301-496-5717

Publicaciones en Español

Prepared by:
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892

NINDS health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or any other Federal agency. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient's medical history.

All NINDS-prepared information is in the public domain and may be freely copied. Credit to the NINDS or the NIH is appreciated.

Last Modified February 23, 2016