Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The meninges are three membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord.
Meningitis is a rare infection that occurs when fluid surrounding the meninges becomes infected, and you or your children can catch it.
There are several types of meningitis, including bacterial, viral, and fungal.
Bacterial meningitis appears to be the worst and can be life-threatening. It spreads between people in close contact with each other.
Viral meningitis appears to be less severe, and most people recover completely, even without treatment. Most cases of meningitis in the United States are caused by a viral infection.
Fungal meningitis is a rare form of the disease, and usually only happens in people who have a weakened immune system.
The swelling from meningitis typically triggers symptoms such as a headache, fever and a rigid neck.
Some cases of meningitis improve without treatment, while others can be life-threatening and require emergent antibiotic treatment.
Causes of Meningitis
Meningitis is almost always caused by a bacterial or viral infection that begins somewhere else in the body besides the brain. It can begin in your ears, sinuses, or throat.
Less common causes of meningitis include:
- Fungal infection
- Autoimmune disorders
- Cancer medications
Early meningitis symptoms may imitate the flu (influenza), and these symptoms may develop over several hours or over a few days.
Possible signs and symptoms include:
- Stiff neck
- Sudden high fever
- Sensitivity to light
- No appetite or thirst
- A severe headache that seems different than normal
- A headache with nausea or vomiting
- Confusion or difficulty concentrating
- Skin rash (sometimes, such as in meningococcal meningitis)
- Sleepiness or difficulty waking
Newborns and Infants with meningitis may be difficult to comfort, and may even cry harder when held. They may show the following signs:
- Stiffness in a baby’s body and neck
- High fever
- Constant crying
- Excessive sleepiness or irritability
- Inactivity or sluggishness
- Poor feeding
- A bulge in the soft spot on top of a baby’s head (fontanel)
Who’s More Likely to Get Meningitis?
Anyone can get meningitis, but research shows it’s more common in:
- Children under 5
- Teenagers and young adults ages 16-25
- Adults over 55
Also, meningitis is more of a danger for people with certain medical conditions, such as a damaged or missing spleen, and immune system disorders.
Certain germs that cause meningitis can spread easily, thus, outbreaks are most likely to happen in places where people live close to each other. College students in dormitories or military recruits in barracks can be more likely to catch the disease, and so are people who travel to areas where meningitis is more common, such as parts of Africa.
Risk factors for meningitis include:
- Skipping vaccinations: Risk increases for anyone who hasn’t completed the recommended childhood or adult vaccination program.
- Age: studies have shown that most cases of viral meningitis occur in children younger than age 5. Bacterial meningitis is common in those under the age of 20.
- Living in a community setting, like college students living in dormitories, personnel on military bases, and children in boarding schools. These people are at greater risk of meningococcal meningitis, probably because the bacterium is spread by the respiratory route, and spreads quickly through large groups.
- Pregnancy increases the risk of an infection caused by listeria bacteria, which may also cause meningitis. Listeriosis increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and untimely delivery.
- A compromised immune system as a result of AIDS, alcoholism, diabetes, use of immunosuppressant drugs and other factors also make you more susceptible to meningitis.
- Having your spleen removed also increases your risk.
Meningitis complications can be severe, and the longer you have the disease without treatment, the greater the risk of seizures and permanent neurological damage. Other damages include:
- Memory difficulty
- Hearing loss
- Learning disabilities
- Brain damage
- Gait problems
- Kidney failure
- Shock, and death
With prompt treatment, even patients with severe meningitis can have a good chance at recovery.
Who Should Be Vaccinated Against Meningitis?
These groups are considered at risk and should get a meningitis vaccine:
- college freshmen who live in dormitories and haven’t been vaccinated
- adolescents who are 11 to 12 years old
- people traveling to countries where the disease is common
- children ages 2 or older who don’t have a spleen, and
- those who have a compromised immune system
Vaccine For Meningitis
There is a vaccine for several types of bacterial meningitis. While viral meningitis is more common, bacterial meningitis can be more dangerous if it’s not diagnosed and treated swiftly.
There are two primary vaccines for meningitis, and they are for bacterial causes. The first vaccine, the meningococcal conjugate vaccine, features a vaccine that targets four of the most common types of bacterial serotypes, lasts longer and offers greater protection, especially if you maintain booster shots.
The second vaccine, MenB, targets one specific strain. Its protection window is much shorter, and only certain populations are recommended to get this vaccine.
Side effects of a meningitis vaccine may include:
- Redness and burning at the injection site.
- Low-grade fever for a day or two following the injection.
- Chills, headache, joint pain, and fatigue are also likely.
Treatment is determined by the cause of your meningitis, and bacterial meningitis requires immediate hospitalization. Remember that early diagnosis and treatment will prevent brain damage and death.
Bacterial meningitis is treated with intravenous antibiotics, and there’s no specific antibiotic for bacterial meningitis. It all depends on the bacteria involved.
Fungal meningitis is treated with antifungal means. Parasitic meningitis may either involve treating just the symptoms or attempting to treat the infection directly and depending on the cause, this type may get better without antibiotic treatment.
Most viral meningitis may resolve on its own, but some causes of viral meningitis need to be treated with intravenous antiviral medications.
How Contagious Is Meningitis?
Several types of meningitis (Fungal, parasitic and non-infectious meningitis) are not contagious, but viral meningitis is contagious.
It’s spread through direct contact with body fluids, including mucus, feces, and saliva, and droplets of infected fluid can be spread and shared with sneezing and coughing.
You do not necessarily have to come into direct contact with an infected person to pick up this infection.
Bacterial meningitis is the most serious form of meningitis and can be contagious, especially if it’s meningococcal meningitis. It is spread through extended contact with an infected person.
Schools, daycare centers, military barracks, hospitals, and college dormitories are prime locations for sharing this infection.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially if you’re at increased risk, is very important. Preventive methods include
- getting adequate amounts of rest
- avoiding contact with sick people
- quitting smoking or not smoking
Take preventive antibiotics if you’ve been in close contact with one or more people who have a bacterial meningococcal infection, as this will decrease your chances of developing the disease.
Vaccinations can also protect against certain types of meningitis. Vaccines that can prevent meningitis include the following:
Avoid sharing drinks, utensils, and personal items that may carry saliva or other body fluids. Take these steps to prevent getting meningitis.