What Is Meningitis?

Have you been exposed to meningitis? If you have, you may need to visit a doctor right away.

Meningitis is an infection that causes inflammation in the membranes surrounding your spinal cord and brain. It can affect both adults and children. Most cases in the United States happen because of a viral infection, though people can also get it from parasitic, bacterial and fungal infections.

Some cases of meningitis improve without the need for treatment. Other cases can be life-threatening. There are approximately over 4,000 cases of bacterial meningitis in the United States each year, and an estimated 500 of these cases are fatal.

Getting early treatment for meningitis can prevent serious complications, including brain damage, learning difficulties, seizures, memory problems and kidney failure. Recognizing the symptoms can help someone identify and treat it as quickly as possible, reducing the risk of complications.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

In the early stages of meningitis, you may think you came down with the flu. However, if you have meningitis, you will soon develop additional symptoms as well. These symptoms can occur over several hours, but they typically emerge between three and seven days after infection.

Meningitis symptoms include:

  • A rash.
  • A fever.
  • A headache.
  • A stiff neck.
  • Light sensitivity.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Cold feet or hands.
  • Muscle pain.

In later stages of meningitis, you can have a seizure or fall into a coma.

Anyone of any age can get meningitis, but those with weak immune systems, such as infants, are more susceptible. Newborns and infants under two years of age can show signs such as:

  • A high fever.
  • Excessive sleep.
  • Stiffness of the neck and body.
  • Poor feeding.
  • Sluggishness or inactivity.
  • A bulge in the fontanel, the soft spot on the head.

If you have a rash you suspect is a sign of meningitis, there is a test you can do yourself. The test is called the glass test. Firmly press the side of a drinking glass against the rash. If the rash loses color or fades, you probably do not have meningitis. If the glass does not affect the color of the rash, it could be a sign of meningitis.

However, you should not solely rely on the glass test to prove or disprove a meningitis diagnosis. Even if you do not think you have meningitis, you should visit a doctor as soon as possible to perform diagnostic tests.

Who is most likely to get meningitis?

Although anybody can get meningitis, it is more common in certain age groups. These groups are children under five years of age, people between 16 and 25 years of age and adults over 55 years of age.

Related Article: Recommended Vaccinations for Senior Citizens

People who have certain medical conditions are also more prone to getting meningitis. These conditions include long-term diseases, immune system disorders and a damaged or missing spleen.

Most forms of meningitis are contagious, so outbreaks tend to happen in locations where people are living close to one another, such as military barracks or student dorms. Additionally, meningitis is more common in some regions than others, including sub-Saharan Africa.

What are the different types of meningitis?

There are several types of meningitis which range in severity. Viral meningitis is generally not too serious. Most people with viral meningitis recover without any issue.

Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, can be life-threatening. Symptoms typically set in within a few hours of infection, making early identification crucial. If not identified quickly, it can cause permanent damage or death within a day.

Both bacterial and viral meningitis can spread easily through close contact. However, not all forms of meningitis are easily spread. For instance, fungal meningitis is not spread through human contact. Instead, it comes from inhaling certain spores in the environment.

Parasitic meningitis is also not spread through contact. Instead, it is contracted through certain spores, bugs or eggs found in the environment and the food you eat. You are therefore less likely to contract parasitic meningitis compared to bacterial or viral meningitis.

Can you avoid getting meningitis?

There are steps you can take in order to protect yourself from getting viral and bacterial meningitis. Because these are contagious, they can spread through sneezing, coughing, kissing or sharing a toothbrush, cigarette or utensil. If you know someone has meningitis, limit your contact with him or her for the best results.

Practicing good hygiene is another way of preventing meningitis. You must wash your hands to stop germs spreading. This is particularly important to do before you eat, go to the bathroom and pet animals.

Staying healthy gives you some protection against meningitis, as your immune system may be stronger. Get enough rest, exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. If you regularly do these things, you are significantly less likely to get meningitis.

Regular checkups and vaccinations can help you avoid coming down with meningitis. Low-income families can sign up for Medicaid to receive wellness exams and standard vaccinations that prevent against illness. The Children’s Health Insurance Program can cover treatment for children whose parents cannot afford health insurance but do not qualify for Medicaid.

Treating Meningitis

Antibiotics are vital in treating bacterial meningitis. Usually, these are given intravenously in a hospital. However, if inflammation is causing pressure on your brain, you may be given corticosteroids.

To reduce your fever, you might take paracetamol or acetaminophen. Cooling pads, good ventilation of your room and sponge baths can also help bring your fever down.

If your meningitis is making you irritable and restless, you can take sedatives to help. This can help you get more rest, which allows you to heal faster.

Along with treating symptoms after infection sets in, there are also several vaccinations designed to help protect you from getting bacterial meningitis in the first place. This includes:

  • Haemophilus influenzae type B vaccine. Children two years of age and older routinely receive this vaccine in the United States. It can be given to some adults as well.
  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine. A single dose of this vaccine is recommended for children between 11 and 12 years of age, followed by a booster shot at 16 years of age.
  • Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine. This is part of the regular battery of vaccines given to children under two years of age in the United States.
  • Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine. This vaccine can be given to children and adults in order to protect them from pneumococcal bacteria. It is recommended for all adults over 65 years of age. It can also be used for young adults and children over two years of age who have a weakened immune system or a chronic illness.

Viral meningitis is generally treated with antibiotics. For fungal meningitis, you need a long course of antifungal medication. Typically, this medication is given intravenously at a hospital. There are no vaccines to prevent fungal meningitis.

Related Article: Immunization as Preventative Care

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