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What Is Meningitis?

Meningitis is inflammation of membranes around the brain and spinal cord. It can be bacterial, viral, or fungal. People of any age can get meningitis, but most adults are older than 60 and most children younger than 15, and half are younger than 4.

People who have greater chances of getting bacterial meningitis include those who had their spleen removed, have poor immune (infection-fighting) systems, have suffered a head injury, or have cancer or diabetes mellitus. Those living in crowded camps or dormitories and alcoholics also have a greater chance of getting meningitis.

What Causes Meningitis?

The many causes include bacteria, viruses, fungi, chemicals, drugs, and tumors. The most common bacteria include Neisseria meningitidis, Haemophilus influenzae, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli, Klebsiella species, and group B streptococcus. Bacteria and viruses spread through passing of respiratory and throat secretions (coughing, kissing).

What Are the Symptoms of Meningitis?

In adults common symptoms include high fever, severe headache, and stiff neck, which start over several hours. Others are nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, feeling sick, muscle and joint aches, and seizure-like muscle jerks. Poor coordination, confusion, drowsiness, loss of consciousness, and rash also occur.

Children have fever, high-pitched moaning or crying, grunting, fretfulness, and tiredness. They don’t eat, are sick, arch their back or neck, and have pale, blotchy skin and rash. Newborns and small babies may seem only slow or inactive, be irritable, vomit, or feed poorly. They may not have the common symptoms.

How Is Meningitis Diagnosed?

The health care provider makes a diagnosis by looking for bacteria in a sample of spinal fluid. The doctor gets fluid by doing a spinal tap. A needle is put into a spot in the lower back where fluid in the spinal canal can be reached. The health care provider may also order blood tests and x-ray imaging tests of the brain.

How Is Meningitis Treated?

People need a hospital stay for treatment with intravenous antibiotics, plenty of fluids, and rest. Bacterial meningitis is usually fatal if untreated. Other types of meningitis (viral) aren’t as dangerous, and people don’t usually need a hospital stay. Viral meningitis usually goes away on its own. Antibiotics can’t help it.

A neurologist (specialist in brain diseases) or a doctor who treats infectious diseases may be involved in care.

Most people usually recover completely from meningitis. Recovery can take 2 to 3 weeks or longer.

A vaccine protects against some forms of N. meningitidis. It’s recommended in children at risk for meningitis but is not routinely used in the United States. It is sometimes used for outbreaks. College students, especially those living in dormitories, have more chances of getting meningitis and should consider getting this vaccine. Newer vaccines are also available for meningitis.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Meningitis:

  • DO understand the importance of bacterial meningitis. It’s a medical emergency and needs immediate attention and treatment.
  • DO call your health care provider if you have symptoms of bacterial meningitis.
  • DO call your health care provider if you have questions about meningitis vaccines.
  • DON’T forget that people who are close contacts of someone with meningitis caused by N. meningitidis should get antibiotics to prevent meningitis.

Contact the following sources:

  • Meningitis Foundation of America
    Tel: (800) 668-1129
  • National Meningitis Association
    Tel: (866) 366-3662

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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