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Meningitis: Bacterial vs. Viral Infections

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HOUSTON – There are two types of meningitis: bacterial and viral. So what's the difference? We try to explain with the help of information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meningitis is the swelling of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord usually due to infection, either bacterial or viral. The CDC said it's important to know the cause of meningitis because the treatment is different.

READ: More about bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is the more serious of the two types and can be deadly. 

Meningitis symptoms include sudden onset of fever, headache, and stiff neck. There are often other symptoms, such as:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Photophobia (increased sensitivity to light)
  • Altered mental status (confusion)

READ: More about viral meningitis

Viral meningitis is the more common type, and most patients get better on their own without treatment. However, the CDC says babies younger than 1 month old and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to have severe illness from viral meningitis.

Symptoms:

Common symptoms in babies:

  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Poor eating
  • Sleepiness or trouble waking up from sleep
  • Lethargy (a lack of energy)

Common symptoms in adults:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Sleepiness or trouble waking up from sleep
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy (a lack of energy)

According to the CDC, it’s very important for anyone with symptoms of meningitis to see a healthcare provider right away because some types of meningitis can be very serious, and only a doctor can determine if you have the disease, the type of meningitis, and the best treatment, which can sometimes be lifesaving.

Prevention

The CDC says the best protection for you and your child against certain types of bacterial meningitis is to get vaccinated. 

For viral meningitis, you can take the following steps to help lower your chances of getting infected with non-polio enteroviruses or spreading them to other people:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after changing diapers, using the toilet, or coughing or blowing your nose.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact such as kissing, hugging, or sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve, not your hands.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs, especially if someone is sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.

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