Doctors can often see signs of meningitis and its complications on an MRI. But MRI alone is usually not enough to confirm a diagnosis.

Meningitis is a serious and urgent condition. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 6 people with meningitis dies, and 1 in 5 has serious complications or permanent damage.

One of the tools that doctors use to see if you have meningitis is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

In this article, we explore MRI and its effectiveness when checking for meningitis, other tests, and what to expect after a diagnosis.

When it comes to diagnosing meningitis, MRI can indeed play a crucial role. You can often see signs of meningitis on an MRI.

MRI is generally effective in helping detect meningitis, primarily when doctors use it alongside other diagnostic tools. But its effectiveness can vary.

For example, in a 2022 study, researchers concluded that MRI was effective in detecting meningitis in infants. However, they noted that MRI had high specificity and moderate sensitivity.

It’s crucial to understand that while MRI can reveal signs suggestive of meningitis, it cannot definitively diagnose the condition. The final diagnosis usually requires a lumbar puncture to test the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) for infection.

MRI provides detailed images of the brain and spinal cord. In the case of meningitis, it can reveal inflammation or abnormalities in the meninges, the protective membranes covering these areas. These changes may appear as thicker than usual areas or evidence of inflammation.

Furthermore, MRI can track the progression of meningitis over time. This helps provide doctors with a clearer understanding of how the disease is affecting the body and how you are responding to treatment.

While an MRI can provide valuable information when diagnosing meningitis, it’s not the only tool physicians use. A doctor may perform several other tests to confirm a diagnosis of meningitis.

The most definitive test for meningitis is a lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap.

During a lumbar puncture, a doctor takes a small sample of CSF to analyze for signs of infection. CSF is the fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. The presence of certain bacteria or viruses in the CSF can confirm a diagnosis of meningitis.

In addition to a lumbar puncture, the medical team may take blood tests to detect the bacteria or virus causing the meningitis. This can help determine the most effective treatment plan.

Finally, if your doctor suspects you may have swelling or abscesses in the brain, they may order a computed tomography (CT) scan before a lumbar puncture. This can help ensure that the lumbar puncture is safe to perform.

Once you receive a meningitis diagnosis, the treatment journey begins. The primary goal is to reduce the severity of symptoms and prevent complications.

Your treatment will depend on the type of meningitis you have:

  • Viral: Viral meningitis goes away on its own within 10 days, but you should still go to the doctor for a diagnosis. You typically won’t need to take any medications, but your doctor may still prescribe antiviral drugs if you have other viruses that cause meningitis, such as influenza. You may need to rest and take pain relievers.
  • Bacterial: In the case of bacterial meningitis, you’ll usually need to take antibiotics. You’ll need to start treatment right away, as this is much more dangerous than the viral form. Even though most people do recover, it can lead to permanent disabilities, such as brain damage, or even death within hours.
  • Fungal: If your meningitis is due to a fungal infection, you may need to take antifungal drugs, either via intravenous therapy (IV) or orally at home.
  • Parasitic: Although rare, you could also get meningitis from a parasite infection. In this case, your treatment will depend on the parasite and your overall health. You may need to take pain relievers and medication to fight the infection.
  • Amebic: While rare, you can get an amebic infection by inhaling a microscopic organism from fresh water, such as when swimming. Treatment may include drugs such as fluconazole and azithromycin. However, amebic meningitis has around 97% mortality rate.

Throughout this process, you’ll likely undergo regular medical checkups. This helps doctors monitor your body’s response to treatment. They may repeat imaging tests like MRI to track changes in your brain and meninges.

Regular rest, proper nutrition, and staying hydrated are also important for your recovery. Your doctor may also recommend ways to prevent getting worse, especially if you have a weakened immune system.

Here are some frequently asked questions about meningitis and MRI.

Is MRI safe for children?

Yes, experts consider MRI to be generally safe for children. It’s a noninvasive procedure that doesn’t use ionizing radiation, making it a safer choice compared to other imaging methods like CT scans.

Can you see meningitis on a CT scan?

Yes, a CT scan can detect signs of meningitis, but it may not be as detailed or sensitive as an MRI.

Do bacterial and viral meningitis show up differently on an MRI?

Yes. While both types can cause inflammation visible on an MRI, bacterial meningitis often results in more pronounced changes, such as brain swelling or abscesses.

MRI is a safe way of detecting the possibility of meningitis, especially if it’s bacterial. However, it’s not entirely accurate, so doctors often use other tests, such as a lumbar puncture, to confirm a diagnosis.

If you notice any symptoms of meningitis, go to a doctor right away, as some forms are severe and require immediate treatment.