Understanding Meningitis

Meningitis is the inflammation of the lining around the spinal cord and the brain, collectively known as the meninges. Meningitis is usually viral or bacterial. Occasionally it is caused by fungal infections, although almost all microbes can cause it. Bacterial meningitis is the most serious type caused by a range of different bacteria.

Bacterial meningitis can kill in hours. Viral meningitis, on the other hand, can be very displeasing, but this type is almost never fatal. Most patients with viral meningitis fully recover. Meningococcal meningitis is caused by meningococcal bacteria. Most people who have this type can also have some symptoms of meningococcal septicaemia. Meningococcal meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia together are called meningococcal disease.

Symptoms of meningitis

Meningitis can be hard to recognize at first. Symptoms can appear in any order, but the first symptoms are usually headache, fever, and feeling unwell, similar to the symptoms of many mild illnesses. Severe headache is the most common symptom of meningitis (found in 87% of all cases) followed by neck stiffness (83% of cases). The classic triad of diagnostic signs and symptoms of meningitis consists of neck stiffness, sudden high fever, and altered mental status. These are present in 44% of all cases.

Other common signs are seizures (in 20% to 40% of all cases), dislike of bright light (photophobia), dislike of loud noises (phonophobia), delirium and irritability (in small children), and sleepiness. Infants (0-6 months) with meningitis may have swollen fontanelle (soft spot). Other symptoms of meningitis include Brudzinski’s sign and Kernig’s sign.

Incidence and prevalence

About 70% of all cases of meningitis occur in adults over 60 years old and children under 5 years old. Bacterial meningitis affects approximately 3 in 100,000 people every year in the United States, and viral meningitis affects around 10 in 100,000 people. Meningitis is more likely to occur in people between 15 and 24 years of age who have not received vaccination.

Risk factors

A suppressed immune system is the major risk factor for meningitis. The following may cause a weak immune system: alcoholism, intravenous drug abuse, immunosuppressive drugs (such as corticosteroids and chemotherapies), autoimmune disorders (like lupus), smoking, removal of the spleen, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and diabetes.

You also increase your risk for meningitis if you have not received vaccines for mumps, if you live and work with large group of people (for example, hospitals or military bases), and if you are working with domestic animals. Brain surgery and head injuries can also put you at risk for meningitis.

How to treat meningitis?

Treating meningitis depends on your age, the type of organism that caused infection, the extent of the infection, complications of meningitis, and the presence of other medical conditions.

A mild case of viral meningitis may only require home treatment, including medicine to manage pain and control fever and fluids to avoid dehydration. If your condition worsens, go to a doctor and have yourself tested for other causes of illness. Bacterial meningitis requires treatment in a hospital that includes antibiotics, measures to reduce fever and prevent seizures, measures to minimize pressure within the brain, monitoring fluids and blood chemicals, and oxygen therapy.