Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that surround the spinal cord and brain. It can be caused by an infection of different kinds of bacteria or viruses. Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis, which is far more serious and can be life threatening if left untreated. The agents that cause meningitis are often associated with other illnesses, such as infections of the skin, urinary and GI systems, or respiratory tract. Severe infections of the ear or nasal sinuses can also spread to the spinal fluid and brain, where they can cause meningitis.
Both viral and bacterial meningitis are spread when an uninfected person comes in contact with fluid droplets from an infected person. These droplets are usually spread by coughing, talking, or sneezing. Infections are usually spread when people are in close, regular contact, such as co-workers, classmates, or housemates who share enclosed spaces. Casual contact with coworkers or classmates usually is not enough to spread infectious agents that cause meningitis.
Meningitis symptoms are variable from patient to patient and depend on factors such as the patient’s age and the cause of the original infection. Primary symptom onset occurs quickly and often follows a cold, diarrhea/nausea, or other symptoms of infection. Common symptoms of bacterial meningitis include a stiff neck, chronic headache, fever, lethargy, sensitivity to light, and skin rashes. If left untreated, meningitis can lead to seizures, brain damage and even death.
Viral meningitis causes fever, headache, and other flu-like symptoms. Often viral meningitis is mild enough that it may be undiagnosed altogether and resolve itself with bed rest and palliative care within seven to ten days.
Bacterial meningitis is a very serious illness that must be treated right away to prevent complications. If a child seems to have any form of meningitis, it is critical to take them to a doctor or hospital emergency room immediately. The attending physician will order lab tests including a spinal tap to collect spinal fluid to determine if a virus or bacteria is causing the infection. If the patient has viral meningitis, they may be hospitalized, although typically recovery at home is sufficient if the patient is not overly sick. If bacterial meningitis is suspected, the patient will be hospitalized, isolated, and intravenously administered antibiotics to fight the infection.
Routine immunization for a number of diseases that can cause meningitis is the single best means of preventing the disease. Vaccines for measles, mumps, polio, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), meningococcus and pneumococcus can protect children and adults from meningitis. Children should be vaccinated against meningococcal disease when they are eleven years old, and be administered a follow-up booster shot five years later. Adolescents and adults who have never been vaccinated or received booster shots should also be immunized. This is particularly important if they will be in a setting where they will live in close contact with others, such as college or boarding school, the military, or camp.
The bacteria and viruses that can lead to meningitis are common and easily transmitted; many of them remain viable on surfaces such as doorknobs and countertops. Because of this, good hygiene is another important means of preventing infection. Good hand hygiene, particularly after using the bathroom and before eating, should be encouraged. Avoid sharing utensils, food, and beverages to prevent the spread of infectious agents, and stay away from persons who are ill whenever possible. Infected people should stay home from work or school to avoid passing infectious agents to others. Occasionally, people who have come in contact with infected persons will be prescribed antibiotics as a preventative measure.
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