What is Meningitis and How is it Treated or Prevented?

Every college school year brings with it the risk of one or more deaths from a strain of meningitis. It is crucial that all students and their parents are informed about all five types of meningitis. In this article we will address bacterial meningitis. We will cover all the types over the next few days. This information includes what to look for to determine whether you or someone else has the disease. If you suspect meningitis, please go to the ER immediately.

Today, we will focus on Bacterial Meningitis.

What is Meningitis?

Meningitis is a disease caused by the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord known as the meninges. The inflammation is usually caused by an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Meningitis may develop in response to a number of causes, usually bacteria or viruses, but it can also be caused by physical injury, cancer or certain drugs.

The severity of illness and the treatment differ depending on the cause.

Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is usually severe. While most people with the disease recover, it can cause serious complications, such as brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disabilities.

There are several pathogens (types of germs) that can cause bacterial meningitis. Some of the leading causes in the United States include Haemophilus influenzae (most often caused by type b, Hib), Streptococcus pneumoniae, group B StreptococcusListeria monocytogenes, and Neisseria meningitidis.

Causes

Common causes of bacterial meningitis vary by age group:

Age Group Causes
Newborns Group B Streptococcus, Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes
Infants and Children Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, Haemophilus influenzae type b
Adolescents and Young Adults Neisseria meningitidis, Streptococcus pneumoniae
Older Adults Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, Listeria monocytogenes

Signs & Symptoms

Meningitis infection may show up in a person by a sudden onset of fever, headache, and stiff neck. It will often have other symptoms, such as:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Increased sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • Altered mental status (confusion)

The symptoms of bacterial meningitis can appear quickly or over several days. Typically they develop within 3-7 days after exposure.

Babies younger than one month old are at a higher risk for severe infections than older children. In newborns and infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to notice. The infant may appear to be slow or inactive (lack of alertness), irritable, vomiting or feeding poorly. In young infants, doctors may look for a bulging fontanelle (soft spot on infant’s head) or abnormal reflexes, which can also be signs of meningitis. If you think your infant has any of these symptoms, call the doctor or clinic right away.

Later bacterial symptoms can be very severe (e.g., seizures, coma). For this reason, anyone who thinks they may have it should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Diagnosis

If meningitis is suspected, samples of blood or cerebrospinal fluid (near the spinal cord) are collected and sent to the laboratory for testing. It is important to know the specific cause because that helps doctors understand how to treat the disease, and possibly how bad it will get. In the case of bacterial meningitis, antibiotics can help prevent severe illness and reduce the spread of infection from person to person.

If bacteria are present, they can often be grown (cultured). Growing the bacteria in the laboratory is important for confirming the presence of bacteria, identifying the specific type of bacteria that is causing the infection, and deciding which antibiotic will work best. Other tests can sometimes find and identify the bacteria if the cultures do not.

Treatment

Bacterial meningitis can be treated effectively with antibiotics. It is important that treatment be started as soon as possible. Appropriate antibiotic treatment of the most common types of bacterial meningitis should reduce the risk of dying to below 15%, although the risk remains higher among young infants and the elderly.

Prevention

The most effective way to protect you and your child against certain types of bacterial meningitis is to complete the recommended vaccine schedule. There are vaccines for three types of bacteria that can cause meningitis: Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus), Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus), and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).

Antibiotics may be recommended for close contacts of people with meningococcal meningitis. Antibiotics may also be recommended for the entire family if a family member develops severe Hib infection and there’s a high risk person in the house. This is to decrease the risk of spreading disease to a high risk person, since they are at increased risk for severe disease.

Your doctor or local health department will tell you if there’s a high risk person in your house and antibiotics are needed.

Maintaining healthy habits, like not smoking and avoiding cigarette smoke, getting plenty of rest, and not coming into close contact with people who are sick, can also help. This is especially important for young infants, the elderly, or for those with a weakened immune system, since they are at increased risk for severe disease.

Sourced, in part, from materials provided by the CDC

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