The differences between viral and bacterial meningitis are their causes, the severity of their symptoms, the rate at which symptoms develop and how they are treated, according to the National Meningitis Association. Bacterial meningitis symptoms can develop more rapidly, are more severe and have longer-lasting consequences than viral meningitis, according to the NMA.
Bacterial meningitis is caused by a variety of bacteria transmitted through coughing and sneezing, states WebMD, and it can enter the bloodstream from an infection in the sinuses, ears or upper respiratory tract. It can lead to amputation, hearing loss, kidney damage and death, states the NMA, and to brain damage if untreated, notes WebMD. Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics, according to Healthline.
Symptoms of viral meningitis are similar to bacterial meningitis but less severe, and the patient usually recovers without any treatment. Symptoms of meningitis in teens and young adults include high fever, stiff neck, drowsiness and severe headache; irritability, refusal of food, crying when held and bulging fontanelles in infants; cough and trouble breathing in young children; and a slight headache or fever in older adults, according to Healthline. It can also cause sensitivity to light, vomiting and changes in mental status, such as disorientation and confusion, notes WebMD.
There is no way to tell the difference between bacterial and viral meningitis based on symptoms, notes Healthline. Diagnosis is made by analyzing spinal fluid withdrawn during a spinal tap.