Meningitis: How to Protect Your Family

Your brain and spinal cord are protected by membranes called meninges. These membranes can become inflamed – a condition called meningitis – when a viral or bacterial infection attacks the fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord.

Although there are different causes of meningitis infection, symptoms are relatively consistent – some like those you’d experience with a cold or flu. Symptoms may include:

  • Severe headache
  • High fever
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Altered mental state

In young children, symptoms may include fever, drowsiness, a high-pitched cry or a rash.

See a doctor immediately if you or a child has these symptoms, since some types of meningitis can be deadly.

A blood test and test of your spinal fluid will help confirm whether you have meningitis.

See a doctor immediately if you or a child has these symptoms, since some types of meningitis can be deadly.

Viral Meningitis

Meningitis Facts small

Viral meningitis, the most common type of meningitis in the U.S., is rarely fatal, but it can have long-lasting effects, such as headaches, fatigue and depression. It is also called spinal meningitis, aseptic meningitis and sterile meningitis. Children younger than 5 years old and people with weakened immune systems are at highest risk of getting this type of meningitis.

It is most often caused by enteroviruses, which are passed from person to person through coughing, sneezing or not washing hands thoroughly after using the bathroom. Not everyone with an enterovirus will develop meningitis.

Babies younger than 1 month and people with immune deficiency from disease, chemotherapy or an organ transplantation are more likely to have severe illness with viral meningitis. If your baby under 1 month old has a fever, is lethargic and isn’t feeding well, take your child to an emergency department immediately for evaluation for meningitis.

There are no effective treatments for viral meningitis, although antiviral medicine can be helpful with certain viruses that cause the meningitis. Most people will recover from a mild case within seven to 10 days. Doctors recommend rest, fluids and medicine for pain and fever relief.

No vaccines exist to directly protect you against viral meningitis. You can gain some protection by getting vaccinated against diseases such as measles, mumps, chickenpox and influenza, which can lead to viral meningitis. 

Another line of defense is practicing good hygiene: 

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. 
  • Don’t kiss, hug or eat after people who are sick.
  • Sneeze or cough into your sleeve or a tissue – not your hand.

Bacterial Meningitis

Several types of bacteria can cause meningitis, a rare, possibly deadly infection. Those most vulnerable are babies, children, older adults, and teens and young adults in a community setting such as a college campus. The germs spread from person to person, mostly through behaviors such as living in close quarters, kissing, and sharing drinks and utensils. Bacteria also can be transmitted by people who don’t wash their hands thoroughly after using the toilet.

In severe cases, seizures, coma, and death within 24 to 48 hours can occur. If not treated immediately, bacterial meningitis can cause permanent disabilities such as brain damage, hearing loss and learning disabilities.

Fortunately, vaccines exist to prevent many strains of this serious illness. These include protection against meningococcus, pneumococcus (pneumonia bacteria) and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). Vaccines are recommended for infants and children. Medical experts also recommend two doses at ages 11 through 18. 

Doctors can treat bacterial meningitis with intravenous (IV) antibiotics. The sooner you begin receiving treatment, the better your chance of surviving without lasting effects.

Other Types of Meningitis

Though less common, other types of meningitis exist. These include fungal meningitis, a rare form caused by a fungus that spreads through the bloodstream to the spinal cord. It is not spread from person to person. One type of fungal meningitis, called cryptococcus, may be acquired by breathing in soil contaminated by bird droppings. This is the most common cause of adult meningitis in Africa. Other types are associated with fungal spores in certain types of soil and bird and bat droppings.

People most susceptible to fungal meningitis are those with weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV or cancer. The disease is treated with high doses of antifungal medications, usually with an IV in a hospital. There is no clear way to prevent fungal meningitis, other than avoiding bird droppings and soil where fungi live.

Parasites that live in warm bodies of fresh water can sometimes cause meningitis, which has no clear treatment. 

Non-infectious meningitis may be caused by disease, medication, drugs, head injury or surgery. Doctors evaluate each situation to determine the best course of action.

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