Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. Viral infections are the most common cause of meningitis. These cases typically improve without treatment in a week or two without any lasting effects. Another type of meningitis is caused by bacteria. This inflammation is much more serious and could result in brain damage or even death. Because both kinds of meningitis share the same symptoms, it is important to see a doctor for treatment to prevent complications.
Anyone with meningitis over the age of two could have a high fever, severe headache, stiff neck, fever and chills, nausea and vomiting, change in mental status, seizures, or light sensitivity. Signs of meningitis in newborns and young children may include a high fever, high-pitched cry, irritability, poor feeding, stiffness in the neck and body, and bulging fontanelles (the soft spot on the baby’s head).
Both viral and bacterial meningitis are contagious. They can be spread through tiny droplets of fluid from the throat or nose of an infected person when they cough, laugh, talk or sneeze. Infections also can be transmitted by sharing food, as well as drinking glasses, eating utensils, tissues or towels.
A rare form of meningitis can be caused by fungal infections that enter the blood stream. Anyone can get this type of meningitis, but it is more common in people who have a weakened immune system. Fungal meningitis is not contagious. Treatment requires the intravenous administration of high-dose antifungal medications. In 2012, the Centers for Disease and Prevention investigated a number of cases of fungal meningitis related to contaminated steroid medications that were injected into the patients.
How Meningitis is Diagnosed
Meningitis is diagnosed following a medical history, physical exam and certain diagnostic tests. Blood cultures may be done to check for bacteria, and X-rays or a computerized tomography scan of the head, chest or sinuses could show swelling or inflammation. Meningitis can be confirmed by analyzing a sample of cerebrospinal fluid taken during a spinal tap (lumbar puncture) that shows a low sugar level in addition to increased protein and white blood cell count.
Treatments for Meningitis
Treatment for meningitis will vary depending on the type of infection. Viral meningitis is milder and occurs more often than bacterial meningitis. Viral meningitis typically develops in the late summer and early fall, and frequently affects children and people under the age of 30. Most cases are due to viruses that cause intestinal illness, and require rest, fluids and over-the-counter pain medication to relieve symptoms.
Bacterial meningitis occurs when bacteria enters the bloodstream and migrates to the brain, or if bacteria directly invades the meninges following an ear or sinus infection or skull fracture. These cases require intravenous antibiotics in a hospital setting as soon as possible. The course of antibiotic treatment depends on the type of bacteria causing the infection. If left untreated, complications of bacterial meningitis can be severe, such as hearing loss, visual impairment, brain damage, behavior problems, learning disabilities, paralysis, memory difficulty, speech loss, kidney failure, or death.
Meningitis can be prevented through careful hand washing, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and maintaining your immune system by getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet. Immunizations also are available for several forms of bacterial meningitis, such as the haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine, pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine, and meningococcal conjugate vaccine.