What is Meningitis?

Meningitis is a potentially life-threatening infection of the meninges, the brain linings that protect the brain and spinal cord. Most cases are caused by one of three bacteria, including Streptococcus strains.

However, fungal infections, viruses, autoimmune disorders, cancer, and parasites can also cause the condition. Serious inflammation puts pressure on the brain and spinal cord, causing the patient to fall into a coma. Vaccines can prevent most bacterial forms and some viral causes.

What are the Symptoms of Meningitis?

The viral and bacterial forms are particularly likely in children, but older adults can experience all the major forms of meningitis. While symptoms vary based on the age of the patient and the cause of the condition, some of the most common signs of a meningitis infection are:

  • Stiffness of the neck
  • Tenderness of the muscles (difficulty turning; maneuvering)
  • Stomach pain and vomiting
  • Sudden fever
  • Extremely painful headache
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Weakness and dizziness
  • Seizures

In very young children and babies, body stiffening and bulging in the head is a sign of inflammation. Toddlers may seem to have a case of the flu or a cold, with coughing and wheezing.

Meningitis Causes

Meningitis is most commonly caused by viral infections, but it can also be caused by bacterial and fungal infections. Drug allergies, inflammatory diseases, and certain types of cancer can also cause it. Viral meningitis is caused by enteroviruses (a group of viruses that show up in the late summer and early fall). Other viruses that can cause meningitis include the HIV virus, West Nile virus, mumps and herpes.

Bacterial meningitis is caused by bacterial infections like Neisseria meningitidis – which is caused when meningococcus bacteria enter the bloodstream. This type of meningitis usually affects teenagers and young adults. Streptococcus pneumonia (pneumococcus), listeria monocytogenes (listeria) and haemophilus influenza (haemophilus) are other types of meningitis caused by the spread of bacteria.

Fungal meningitis is typically rare and affects people with weakened immune systems, such as people with AIDS.

How is Meningitis Treated?

For serious bacterial infections, immediate transfusions of strong antibiotics are essential to save the patient’s life. Fungal infections are treated similarly with different drugs, but viral infections must pass on their own.

Patients without complications usually recover from viral meningitis at home with over-the-counter medication to treat inflammation and pain. Babies and elderly adults need a doctor’s attention even if they’re getting better on their own. Supportive treatments like IV fluids, breathing lines, and heart monitors are used in severely ill patients to try to save their lives as the meningitis passes.

Meningitis Prevention

Preventing meningitis is as simple as practicing good hygiene and staying as healthy as possible. Don’t share things like lip balm, food, drinks, eating utensils, or toothbrushes with anyone. Washing your hands frequently – especially after using the bathroom and before eating – can help to prevent the spread of infectious germs and bacteria that lead to meningitis. After being in crowded public areas or after petting animals are also good times to make sure your hands are thoroughly cleaned and rinsed.

You can stay healthy by making sure you’re getting an adequate amount of rest each night, eating a healthy diet of whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and exercising habitually. Whenever you feel the urge to sneeze or cough, remember to cover your nose and mouth to prevent spreading anything to anyone around you.

Immunizations – such as the Haemophilus influenza b (Hib) vaccine – can also prevent meningitis. Other vaccinations available include the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23), the Meningococcal conjugate vaccine, and the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13).