What is Meningitis?
Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges which are the membranes that protect your brain and spinal cord. Inflammation 0r swelling of the brain is caused by the spread of infection. Meningitis is a 911 medical emergency because the inflammation is so close to the spine and brain and, if not treated quickly, can lead to serious life-threatening problems.
Common Symptoms of Meningitis:
Headache, fever and stiff neck are the classic signs for meningitis, however, vomiting, confusion, lethargy, sensitivity to light, sensitivity to loud noise, skin rash and seizures can also occur. Symptoms are more difficult to detect in infants and younger children. They may show signs of fatigue, fever, irritability, poor appetite, high-pitched cry, stiff neck, swelling of the fontanel (soft spot), and a rash. Symptoms may come on quickly or after several days of having a cold or flu.
If not treated in time, bacterial meningitis can have serious complications, including:
• Hearing loss or deafness
• Vision loss
• Brain damage
If you or someone you know has been exposed to someone with meningitis, contact your physician as they may want to begin a preventative course of antibiotics in case you were infected.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Meningitis:
A spinal tap or lumbar puncture is commonly used to diagnose meningitis. Identifying the source of infection is an important part of developing a treatment plan. Intravenous antibiotics are routinely given for treatment and in some cases treatment may begin before test results are obtained if meningitis is suspected to save time and slow down the infection. Immunizations help prevent some types of meningitis.
Reducing Your Risk:
Bacterial meningitis is very contagious and is spread by droplets of saliva from kissing, coughing, sneezing, laughing, sharing a cigarette or talking. As with any infectious disease, you can reduce your risk of contracting meningitis by practicing good hygiene. Teach your children to wash their hands and to avoid sharing food and drink, straws and other eating utensils, as well as toothbrushes, tissues, towels and anything else that comes into contact with bodily fluids.
There are vaccines that help prevent some of the bacteria that cause meningitis. The haemophilus vaccine (HiB vaccine), pneumococcal conjugate vaccine and quadrivalent meningococcal vaccine (MCV4) each can reduce the risk of certain types of meningitis.
Causes of Meningitis:
A number of strains of bacteria can cause acute bacterial meningitis. The most common include:
Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus). This bacterium is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in infants and young children in the United States. It can also cause pneumonia and ear and sinus infections. When pneumococcal meningitis is associated with an ear infection, it’s not always clear which came first — the meningitis or the ear infection — because they usually occur together.
Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus). This bacterium is another leading cause of bacterial meningitis. Meningococcal meningitis commonly occurs when bacteria from an upper respiratory infection enter your bloodstream. This infection is highly contagious and may cause local epidemics in college dormitories and boarding schools and on military bases.
Haemophilus influenzae (haemophilus). Before the 1990s, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) bacterium was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis. But new Hib vaccines — available as part of the routine childhood immunization schedule in the United States — have greatly reduced the number of cases of this type of meningitis. When it occurs, it tends to follow an upper respiratory infection, ear infection (otitis media) or sinusitis.
Listeria monocytogenes (listeria). These bacteria can be found almost anywhere — in soil, in dust and in foods that have become contaminated. Contaminated foods have included soft cheeses, hot dogs and luncheon meats. Many wild and domestic animals also carry the bacteria. Fortunately, most healthy people exposed to listeria don’t become ill, although pregnant women, newborns and older adults tend to be more susceptible. Listeria can cross the placental barrier, and infections in late pregnancy may cause a baby to be stillborn or die shortly after birth.
Some forms of bacterial meningitis are reduced with the following vaccinations:
Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine. Children in the United States routinely receive this vaccine as part of the recommended schedule of vaccines, starting at about 2 months of age. The vaccine is also recommended for some adults, including those who have sickle cell disease or AIDS and those who don’t have a spleen.
Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV7). This vaccine is also part of the regular immunization schedule for children younger than 2 years in the United States. In addition, it’s recommended for children between the ages of 2 and 5 who are at high risk of pneumococcal disease, including children who have chronic heart or lung disease or cancer.
Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPV). Older children and adults who need protection from pneumococcal bacteria may receive this vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the PPV vaccine for all adults older than 65 and younger adults and children who have weak immune systems, chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes or sickle cell anemia, and those who don’t have a spleen.
Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that a single dose of MCV4 be given to children ages 11 to 12 or to any children ages 11 to 18 who haven’t yet been vaccinated. However, this vaccine can be given to younger children who are at high risk of bacterial meningitis or who have been exposed to someone with the disease. It is approved for use in children as young as 2 years old.