Nervous System Home > Spinal Meningitis

How Is It Diagnosed?

Early diagnosis and treatment of spinal meningitis are vital.
The disease is often diagnosed using laboratory tests of spinal fluid obtained with a spinal tap. A spinal tap is a test in which a needle is inserted into an area in the lower back where fluid in the spinal canal is readily accessible.
For the bacterial variety, identification of the bacteria responsible is important so that the correct antibiotics can be prescribed. The specific cause of viral form can be determined by tests that identify the virus in specimens collected from the person. However, these tests are rarely done because the treatment for viral meningitis isn't dependent on the type of virus responsible.

Treatment for Spinal Meningitis

The bacterial form of spinal meningitis has a high death rate if left untreated, so it requires immediate medical attention. This type can be treated with a number of effective antibiotics. It is important, however, that treatment be started early in the course of the disease. Appropriate antibiotic treatment of most common bacterial types of spinal meningitis should reduce the risk of dying from the infection to below 15 percent, although the risk is higher among the elderly.
No specific treatment for the viral type exists at this time. Most people completely recover on their own. Doctors often will recommend:
  • Bed rest
  • Plenty of fluids
  • Medicine to relieve fever and headache.

Transmission of Spinal Meningitis

Some bacterial forms of spinal meningitis are contagious and can be spread through contact with:
  • Saliva
  • Nasal discharge
  • Feces
  • Respiratory and throat secretions (often spread through kissing, coughing, or sharing drinking glasses, eating utensils, or personal items such as toothbrushes or lipstick).
People sharing a classroom, daycare center, or household with an infected person can become infected. College students (in particular, college freshmen) living in dormitories have a higher risk of contracting meningococcal meningitis than college students overall.
Children without access to childhood vaccines are at increased risk of developing certain bacterial types of spinal meningitis.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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