What One Needs to Know About Meningitis

Posted on March 2, 2012 in Health and Life

By Nidhi Sharma:

Meningitis – a common name in the list of potentially harmful diseases. It shows symptoms of ordinary cold or flu but can turn out to be serious and potentially deadly.

Few days back when my daughter returned from school and informed that one her friend had to be hospitalized due to meningitis, I decided to find out a little more about this commonly heard disease about which many people do not have much clue about.

What is Meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the lining that surrounds the spinal cord and brain. Meningococcal bacteria cross from the blood into the tissue surrounding the brain, and the bacterial toxins cause the membranes around the brain to swell, resulting in increasing intracranial pressure. Meningitis is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Knowing whether a virus or bacterium causes meningitis is important because the severity of illness and the treatments differ. The more common form of meningitis — viral meningitis — is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment, while bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result in brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disability. Unlike other cells in the body, brain cells cannot regenerate after being killed, so damage to the brain caused by inflammation is often permanent. For bacterial meningitis, it is also important to know which type of bacteria is causing the meningitis because antibiotics can prevent some types from spreading and infecting other people.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Meningitis?

High fever, headache, stiff neck, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light are common symptoms of meningitis in anyone over several hours, or they may take 1 to 2 days. A rash may also develop anywhere on the body. In newborns and small infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to detect. The infant may only appear slow or inactive, or be irritable, have vomiting, or be feeding poorly. As the disease progresses, patients of any age may have seizures.

How is Meningitis Diagnosed?

Early diagnosis and treatment are very important. If symptoms occur, the patient should see a doctor immediately. The diagnosis is usually made by growing bacteria from a sample of spinal fluid. Identification of the type of bacteria responsible is important for selection of correct antibiotics.

Can meningitis be treated?

Bacterial meningitis can be treated with a number of effective antibiotics. It is important, however, that treatment be started early in the course of the disease. Appropriate antibiotic treatment of most common types of bacterial meningitis should reduce the risk of dying from meningitis to below 15%, although the risk is higher among the elderly.

Is Meningitis Contagious?

Yes, some forms are bacterial meningitis are contagious. The bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (i.e., coughing, kissing). About 1 in 10 people carry the bacteria at some time in their lives, but are not harmed unless the bacteria enter the bloodstream. Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as infections like the common cold or the flu, and they are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been. Viral meningitis can be the result of polluted water or poor hygiene.

Who is at Risk for Developing Meningitis?

Studies suggest that college students are more susceptible because they live and work in close proximity to each other in dormitories and classrooms. People in the same household or day-care center, or anyone with direct contact with a patient’s oral secretions (such as a boyfriend or girlfriend) would be considered at increased risk of acquiring the infection. Meningitis cases should be reported to state or local health departments to assure follow-up of close contacts and recognize outbreaks.

The Meningitis Vaccines: What Parents Should Know

Many colleges require that students get a meningococcal vaccine before moving into a dorm. Some summer camps also require or recommend the vaccine. Not all types of meningitis can be prevented with vaccines. Fortunately immunization does protect against four types of meningococcal disease.

Preventive Measures:

– Don’t share food, glasses, water bottles, or eating utensils.
– Don’t share tissues or towels.
– Don’t share lip-gloss or lipstick.
– Wash hands often with soap and water.