Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the thin membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Some forms are highly contagious, causing alarm within close communities like college dormitories, military bases and boarding schools.
The symptoms of meningitis are sudden fever, severe headache and a stiff neck. Meningitis often appears with flu-like symptoms that develop over one to two days. Distinctive rashes are seen in some forms of the disease.
The severity of the illness and treatment differ depending on cause, so it is important to know the specific type of meningitis you are treating. There are several types, though the most common causes are viral or bacterial. Parasitic meningitis, less common in developed countries, is caused by parasites that contaminate water, food and soil. Noninfectious meningitis is caused by cancers, lupus, certain medications, head injury and brain surgery and is not contagious.
Enteroviruses, West Nile, herpes simplex and other viruses cause more meningitis cases each year than do bacteria. Viral meningitis is generally benign and clears within two weeks. It is serious but rarely fatal in people with normal immune systems. Commonly spread via fecal contamination, the viruses cause joint pain, diarrhea and sore throat and tend to circulate in late summer and early fall. Vaccines can prevent some types of viral meningitis. Treatment consists of bed rest, plenty of fluids and over-the-counter pain medications to reduce fever and body aches.
Bacterial meningitis is more serious because it develops rapidly, is highly contagious and is associated with a significant risk of death. The leading causes are the Neisseria meningitides and Streptococcus pneumonia bacteria. Bacterial meningitis spreads to others by contact with saliva, nasal discharge, feces and respiratory and throat secretions. Most often it spreads through kissing; coughing; or sharing drinking glasses, eating utensils and personal care items such as toothbrushes, lipstick and cigarettes. People who share a household, classroom or daycare center with an infected person can become infected.
Children without access to vaccinations are at increased risk for bacterial meningitis. Other risk factors include age, living in a community setting, pregnancy, working with animals (coming in contact with the Listeria bacterium) and a compromised immune system. Factors such as AIDS, diabetes, immunosuppressant medications and removal of the spleen can compromise the immune system. Women who are pregnant can contract Listeriosis, a bacterial infection which can cause meningitis if it spreads to the nervous system, putting the unborn baby at risk.
Meningococcal meningitis is a bacterial meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitides or Meningococcus bacteria. Most cases occur in children, adolescents and young adults, usually in winter and spring. The meningococcal conjugate vaccine is recommended for all 11- to 18-yearolds. Meningococcal meningitis may be associated with kidney and adrenal gland failure, shock and death in some cases.
Travelers to the “meningitis belt” in sub-Saharan Africa may be at risk for meningococcal disease, particularly in the dry season from December to June. Epidemics in Africa affect hundreds of thousands of people, killing thousands. The Centers for Disease Control are working with the Meningitis Vaccine Project and its partners to vaccinate more than 300 million people in the region by 2016.
Health care providers performing a physical exam and a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) in which a small sample of cerebrospinal fluid is removed and sent to the laboratory for analysis diagnose meningitis. Imaging tests such as X-rays and CT scans of the chest and skull can detect swelling and inflammation. Blood cultures may also be drawn.
Treatment for bacterial meningitis includes hospitalization with IV antibiotics to be started as soon as possible after symptoms occur. Rest and supportive care are important. Early treatment improves the outcome and prevents serious complications, including death. The death rate is 5 to 15 percent; young children and adults over 50 have the highest risk of death. Complications of meningitis can be severe, such as seizures or neurological damage including loss of hearing, vision, memory or speech; learning disabilities; behavior problems; brain damage; and paralysis.
Help Prevent Meningitis
- Wash your hands before meals and after using the toilet, changing a diaper, petting animals or being in a crowd.
- Stay healthy: Get rest and exercise and eat fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
- Avoid sharing drinking glasses, eating utensils, toothbrushes and other personal items.
- If you are pregnant, eat only thoroughly cooked meat; avoid cheeses made from unpasteurized milk.
- If you have contact with someone who has had meningitis, ask your doctor if you need a vaccination or treatment.
The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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