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Tuberculous Meningitis - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Tuberculous meningitis is a condition that occurs when Mycobacterium tuberculosis spreads to the brain and spinal cord. Read the article to know more.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Published At October 20, 2022
Reviewed AtDecember 1, 2023


Tuberculosis is an airborne lung infection caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It is a serious health issue and is a common condition worldwide. Tuberculosis starts in the lungs, and if left untreated, it spreads into the bloodstream; if it reaches the meninges and it leads to tuberculous meningitis. The most dangerous and lethal manifestation of tuberculosis is tuberculous meningitis.

What Is Tuberculous Meningitis?

Tuberculous meningitis is a condition that is characterized by the inflammation of the meninges (membrane covering that protects the brain and spinal cord) around the brain and spinal cord. It is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis and is either a sole manifestation of tuberculosis or happens along with a lung infection. It has a high mortality rate, especially in children and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)-infected individuals.

What Causes Tuberculous Meningitis?

Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is spread from person to person through inhaling the droplets containing the bacterium. It usually starts as a lung infection, but if not treated immediately, it may spread to other body parts through the bloodstream. When it reaches the meninges, it causes small abscess formation, which later bursts into tuberculous meningitis. This could cause a rise in pressure within the skull in nerve and brain tissue damage.

What Are the Risk Factors?

Tuberculous meningitis is often seen in children aged one to five, although it may develop in adults of all ages. However, people with certain health conditions are more prone to the disease.

Risk factors include:

  • AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

  • Diabetes mellitus.

  • Excessive use of alcohol.

  • Impaired or weakened immune system.

  • TB of the lungs.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Tuberculous Meningitis?

The duration of the presentation of symptoms may range from one day to nine months.

The initial symptoms include:

  • Persistent headache.

  • Low-grade fever.

  • Malaise.

  • Loss of appetite.

  • Fatigue.

  • Vomiting.

  • Behavioral changes.

These symptoms may persist for several weeks. If untreated, the disease progresses, and more specific symptoms appear.

That includes:

  • Severe headache.

  • Dislike toward a bright light.

  • Neck stiffness.

  • Irritability.

  • Lethargy.

  • Confusion.

  • Unconsciousness.

  • Fever and chills.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Agitation.

  • Unusual posture, usually seen in infants below the age of three months - head and neck arched backward.

  • Poor feeding and irritability in children.

  • Decreased consciousness.

What Are the Complications of Tuberculous Meningitis?

Tuberculous meningitis is a serious condition and could be life-threatening. The complications of tuberculous meningitis include:

  • Seizures.

  • Hearing loss.

  • Brain damage and infarction (dead tissue due to the failure of blood supply).

  • Hyponatremia (it is the low level of sodium in the blood).

  • Ischemia (a condition where blood flow to different body parts is reduced or restricted).

  • Stroke.

  • Death.

Unlike most forms of bacterial meningitis, tuberculous meningitis occurs at the base of the skull. Resulting in frequent dysfunction of cranial nerves and obstructive hydrocephalus (blockage in the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid).

How Is Tuberculosis Meningitis Diagnosed?

Unlike most types of bacterial meningitis, diagnosing tuberculous meningitis is difficult as the initial symptoms are non-specific, and symptoms like neck stiffness are not seen in the early phases of the condition. The doctor would take a complete medical history and ask for all the associated symptoms. Then, they will perform a physical examination to check for fast heart rate, neck stiffness, mental status changes, and fever.

The doctor may also advise a spinal tap or a lumbar puncture; the spinal fluid is collected and tested to confirm the condition.

Other tests include:

  • Biopsy of the brain and meninges.

  • Blood culture.

  • Chest X-ray.

  • CT (computer tomography) scan of the head.

  • CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) examination for glucose, protein, and cell count.

  • CSF culture.

  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) of the CSF.

  • Skin test to diagnose TB - PPD (tuberculosis - purified protein derivative) test.

How Is Tuberculous Meningitis Treated?

The multidrug antitubercular antibiotics used for tuberculosis are considered the mainstay of treatment for tubercular meningitis. However, the duration of treatment and the efficacy of the drugs is unclear as most drugs do not penetrate the CSF.

The four drugs used to treat TB include Isoniazid, Rifampin, Pyrazinamide, and Ethambutol. Ethambutol does not penetrate the lining of the brain; instead, a fluoroquinolone, such as Moxifloxacin or Levofloxacin, is used. In the case of drug-resistant tuberculous meningitis, long courses of treatment may be required with alternative medications.

The doctor may also prescribe corticosteroids along with the regimen. The treatment may last as long as 12 months, depending on the severity of the illness. One must take the whole course of the treatment and medications to avoid a re-infection.

In certain severe conditions, hospitalization and close monitoring of the patient may be required.

How Can Tuberculous Meningitis Be Prevented?

The best preventive measure is to prevent TB.

  • BCG vaccine: The bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine is used in many countries where TB is common to prevent TB, especially in young children.

  • Vaccine for healthcare workers who work in close relation to TB patients.

  • Taking appropriate treatment in the early stages of TB prevents further complications.

  • Treating people with non-active or dormant TB; People who test positive for TB but show no symptoms.

  • The primary contacts of the patient should be investigated for Mycobacterium tuberculosis as well to prevent further spread.

  • If a person with TB refuses treatment, then a mandatory quarantine is required to avoid the spread.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook for Tuberculous Meningitis?

The long-term outlook of tuberculous meningitis would depend on the severity of the illness. Early detection and proper treatment can have a good outlook. However, once complications like brain damage or stroke have occurred, the outlook would be bad as these conditions are permanent and can not be reversed. Taking proper treatment; the complete course of medication can also determine the outlook of the illness. If proper treatment is not taken, it may cause the infection to present again.


Tuberculous meningitis is a severe life-threatening condition caused due to Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It usually starts as a TB of the lung and later spreads to the meninges of the brain and spinal cord and causes tuberculous meningitis. Common symptoms include neck stiffness, severe headaches, and light sensitivity. Untreated tuberculous meningitis can have major complications, including brain damage and death. However, early detection and appropriate treatment are said to have a good outlook.

Frequently Asked Questions


What CSF Abnormalities Are Seen in Tuberculous Meningitis?

The following are common findings in the cerebrospinal fluid of tubercular meningitis patients:
- Pleocytosis is characterized by a lymphocytic preponderance. 
- Protein levels are high. 
- Glucose levels are characterized as low.


What Stage Is Tuberculous Meningitis?

- Stage 1: There are no distinct symptoms or indicators. There is no clouding in the mind. There are no neurological impairments.
- Stage 2: Lethargy or behavioral abnormalities, meningeal inflammation, and modest neurological impairments.
- Stage 3: Consists of coma, aberrant movements, convulsions, and severe deficits such as paresis.


What Is the Prognosis for TB Meningitis?

The most severe symptom of extrapulmonary tuberculosis (EPTB), tuberculous meningitis (TM), is lethal if ignored. Short-term mortality is significant; it can range from 20 to 69 percent, even with regular anti-tuberculous medication.


Is Tuberculosis Meningitis Curable?

Tuberculous meningitis is curable when detected early and treated with supportive care and well-monitored medication. The risk of problems can be decreased by prompt and thorough antibiotic therapy.


How Is Tuberculous Meningitis Diagnosed?

Tuberculous meningitis is diagnosed in the following way:
- Positive CSF smear.
- CSF tradition.
- Brain biopsy.
- Meningeal biopsy.


What Is the Protein Content of CSF in TB Meningitis?

Some individuals with tuberculous meningitis may have higher levels of cerebrospinal fluid protein; levels more than 500 mg/dL indicate a breakdown of the blood-brain barrier or increased intracerebral immunoglobulin synthesis.


What Is the Most Frequent Tuberculous Meningitis Complication?

The following are the frequent tuberculous meningitis complications:
- Neural palsies of the head.
- Impairment of vision and blindness.
- Seizures, epilepsy, and ischemia or hemorrhagic stroke.
- Spina bifida.
- Radiculitis is caused by tuberculosis.
- Hyponatremia.
- Hydrocephalus.


What Is the Most Prevalent Cause of Tuberculous Meningitis in Children?

Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the bacterium that causes tuberculous meningitis. Infection normally starts in the lungs, but in one to two percent of cases, the bacteria can also develop TB meningitis.


Is Tuberculosis Meningitis Contagious?

Yes, inhaling droplets from someone who sneezes or coughs or has tuberculosis can introduce the bacterium that causes the disease into the body. It is possible for the bacteria to enter the circulation after they have multiplied in the lungs.


What Colour Is the CSF in Tuberculous Meningitis?

- CSF is clear and seems colorless. 
- Pleocytosis of lymphocytes.
- High levels of protein.
- Low glucose level in CSF.


Who Is Most Vulnerable to Meningitis?

- Newborn infants.
- AIDS patients.
- Drinking disorder.
- Diabetes patients.
- Patient using immunosuppressive medication.
- Other elements that impact the immune system raise the danger of contracting meningitis.


Can One Heal Completely From TB Meningitis?

There is a strong possibility the patient will recover completely if treatment is started before they exhibit symptoms of brain injury. With the use of carefully monitored drug delivery and supportive care, tubercular meningitis can be cured.


Can TB Meningitis Be Fatal?

TB meningitis often has a worse prognosis than other types of meningitis. Even while 70 to 85 percent of people who are impacted will live, up to 25 percent of them may experience long-term problems. This is primarily due to the late identification of the condition.


How Long Does Tuberculous Meningitis Therapy Last?

The high death rate linked to this condition can be significantly reduced with early identification and treatment. A course of therapy should last at least nine months.


Is Brain Tuberculosis Fatal?

Yes, Mycobacterium tuberculosis may lead to the following disease outcomes, all of which can result in death.
- Brain abscesses.
- Multiorgan failure.
- Convulsions.
- Coma.


Can Tuberculosis Induce Meningitis?

The infection often starts elsewhere in the body, typically in the lungs, before moving via the circulation to the meninges; it causes tiny abscesses (known as microtubules) to develop. TB meningitis occurs when these abscesses rupture.
Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar
Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Pulmonology (Asthma Doctors)


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