Knowing symptoms of meningitis and appropriate treatment can prevent permanent damage and death

As several types and causes of meningitis exist, the severity of illness and course of treatment vary for each one.

Meningitis is a relatively rare, but potentially very serious disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is an infection in the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord which causes inflammation in their protective membranes, also known as the meninges. A bacteria or virus is most often the cause of meningitis developing but fungus, autoimmune disorders, cancer, physical injury and even certain medications may also be the culprit.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) notes most cases of meningitis are viral infections that usually get better without medical treatment. In fact, antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infections. If you have close contact with a person who has viral meningitis, you may become infected with the virus that caused it but are not likely to develop meningitis. Entroviruses, which also cause intestinal illness, are most frequently cited when a person is diagnosed with viral meningitis. Arboviruses such as the West Nile virus,and the herpes simplex virus, which causes cold sores, are also frequently found to cause viral meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis, however, is contagious and an extremely serious illness that warrants immediate medical attention. Vaccines do exist for some forms of bacterial meningitis. Especially important is the Hib vaccine that now is routinely is given in multiple doses to infants two months of age and older. Before the vaccine was available, Haemophilus influenza type b was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children under the age of five. Annually 20,000 children in the United States got Hib disease with 3-6 percent of them dying (600-1200 children). Besides causing meningitis, Hib disease can also result in brain damage, deafness, pneumonia, severe swelling of the throat that interferes with breathing and infections of the blood, joints, bones, and pericardium.

Vaccines are also available for the Neisseria meningitides and Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, both known to cause life-threatening infections. Meningitis caused by the Neisseri meningitides bacteria is sometimes referred to as meningococcal meningitis. If not treated quickly, death can occur within hours. Even with treatment, death or permanent damage to the brain and other parts of the body may result. It is spread by respiratory and throat secretions. Coughing, sneezing, and kissing can all transmit these secretions. You can help prevent the spread of bacterial meningitis by practicing good hygiene….washing hands frequently and covering both mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.

Those who live in close quarters, like college dormitories and military barracks, are advised to be vaccinated as are those travelling to countries where meningitis is more common. Before traveling abroad, visit the CDC’s travel page to learn what vaccines are recommended for the area you will be visiting.

Often, bacterial meningitis develops when bacteria originally located in another part of the body such as sinuses, ears; upper respiratory tract gets into the bloodstream and travels to the brain. Symptoms may appear very suddenly with headache, fever, and stiff neck being most common. Sometimes nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light as well as changes in behavior can occur (confusion, sleepiness, difficulty waking up). With infants, symptoms are less obvious. They may appear more irritable, tired, feverish, and have little appetite. Because they cannot talk to explain how they are feeling, don’t hesitate to seek medical attention if your infant seems ill and exhibits these symptoms.

There are other less common forms of meningitis. Fungal meningitis is very rare, usually occurring when spores of the cryptococcus or histoplasma fungus have been inhaled. Those with compromised immune systems (individuals who have cancer, diabetes, HIV) are more at risk for this type of meningitis.

Parasitic meningitis is not commonly found in developed countries and is caused by parasites such as the angiostrongylus cantonensis parasite that can contaminate food, water, and soil.

Non-infectious meningitis are those forms of meningitis caused by cancer, lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus), head injury, brain surgery, and certain drugs rather than being spread person-to-person.

You can learn more about maintaining good health for yourself and family members at the Michigan State University Extension website.

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