Meningitis is an infection of the fluid of a person's spinal cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain. People sometimes refer to it as spinal meningitis. Meningitis is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Knowing whether meningitis is caused by a virus or bacterium is important because the severity of illness and the treatment differ. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment, while bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result in brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disability.
Symptoms of Meningitis
Common symptoms of meningitis include:
- High fever
- Stiff neck
Other symptoms that may appear are:
- Discomfort looking into bright lights
In newborns and small children, the common symptoms may be absent or difficult to detect and the child may only appear slow or inactive, be irritable, have vomiting or be feeding poorly. As the disease progresses, patients of any age may have seizures.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Meningitis
Early diagnosis and treatment are very important. If symptoms occur, the patient should see a doctor immediately. The diagnosis is usually made by growing bacteria from a sample of spinal fluid. The spinal fluid is obtained by performing a spinal tap, in which a needle is inserted into an area in the lower back where fluid in the spinal canal is readily accessible. Identification of the type of bacteria responsible is important for selection of correct antibiotics
Bacterial meningitis can be treated with a number of effective antibiotics. It is important, however, that treatment be started early in the course of the disease. Appropriate antibiotic treatment of the most common types of meningitis should reduce the risk of dying from meningitis to below 15%, although the risk is higher among the elderly.
How Meningitis Spreads
Some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious. The bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (coughing, kissing). Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as things like the common cold or flu, and they are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been.
Sometimes the bacteria that cause meningitis have spread to other people who have had close or prolonged contact with a patient with meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitidis (also called meningococcal meningitis) or Hib. People in the same household, day-care center (if ill person is a child), or anyone with direct contact with a patient's oral secretions (such as a boyfriend/girlfriend) would be considered at increased risk of acquiring the infection. People who qualify as close contacts should receive antibiotics to prevent them from getting the disease. Antibiotics for contacts of a person with Hib meningitis disease are no longer recommended if all contacts 4 years of age or younger are fully vaccinated against Hib disease (see below).
There are vaccines against Hib, some serogroups of N. meningitidis and many types of Streptococcus pneumoniae. The vaccines against Hib are very safe and highly effective.
More information on the vaccination from the CDC is available.