When meningitis strikes, it can be confusing and difficult to identify the symptoms because they are very similar to symptoms one would experience having the flu or a cold. This section is a guide to help you learn and understand meningitis, the various types, what causes it, signs, symptoms, prevention, treatments, and more. Please visit our FAQs page that can help answer frequently asked questions.
What Is Meningitis?
Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes (meninges) surrounding a person’s brain and spinal cord. The inflammation is typically caused by an infection or virus of the cerebral fluid.
Meningitis is typically caused by bacteria, viruses, fungus, or parasites that lead to an infection or virus. Meningitis can also be caused by injury, illness, or substances. When meningitis occurs, the membranes (meninges) become inflamed.
The meninges are a collection of membranes that surround and protect a person’s brain and spinal cord. Their primary purpose is to protect the central nervous system. Inflammation of the meninges is caused by an infection of the fluid (cerebrospinal fluid) surrounding the brain and spinal cord. When these membranes become inflamed as a result of infection it is referred to as meningitis. A meningitis infection can range from mild and requiring little to no intervention, to severe with fatal consequences if left untreated. There are several forms of meningitis including viral, bacterial, fungal, parasitic, and meningitis from non-infectious causes. The most common types of meningitis are those arising from a viral or bacterial infection.
The severity of meningitis varies depending on its form. There are 5 categories of meningitis – bacteria, viral, parasitic, fungal, and non-infectious meningitis. Knowing the cause of meningitis is important because the ineffectiveness, spread, danger, and treatment can differ.
The Cause of Meningitis
Meningitis can be caused by lots of different pathogens. Worldwide, more people suffer and struggle with bacterial meningitis than any other form of the illness. Some of the pathogens that can cause meningitis include:
- Bacteria (Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae Neisseria meningitidis)
It’s important to note that in some rare cases, meningitis can also be caused by injuries, cancer, certain drugs, and even other types of infections.
Types of Meningitis
Bacterial meningitis is extremely dangerous and can be life-threatening. Bacterial meningitis is caused by bacteria instead of a virus as with viral meningitis. Age plays a large factor in the type of bacteria that causes meningitis. Group B Streptococci, Listeria monocytogenes, meningococcus, and streptococcus pneumoniae are all forms of bacterial meningitis. Bacterial meningitis is especially dangerous because it can spread quickly causing an epidemic. College students living in dormitories are at increased risk. Weakened immune systems from diseases, medication, and surgical procedures can cause an individual to be considered at high risk for bacterial meningitis. Travelers to foreign nations such as the sub-Saharan desert in Africa can be susceptible to meningitis. Head trauma can also potentially lead to meningitis if nasal bacteria is able to enter the meningeal space. Symptoms can appear quickly within 3-7 days. Seizures and comas are often a symptom of severe bacterial infection. Health people may carry the bacteria that cause meningitis in their nasal cavity and throat without becoming ill.
Meningococcal Disease is the combination of meningococcal meningitis (bacterial infection of the meninges of the brain and spinal cord) and meningococcemia (a blood infection). Meningococcal bacteria (Neisseria Meningitidis bacteria) is the cause of meningococcal meningitis infections. Meningococcal meningitis requires immediate attention as it can cause severe damage and even death within 24 – 48 hours. Meningococcal meningitis survivors often suffer severe long-term effects. Everyone is susceptible to meningococcal meningitis unless vaccinated. However, there are cases that have not been preventable through vaccination.
Pneumococcal meningitis is caused when pneumonia bacteria (Streptococcus pneumonia) has infected the bloodstream and infected the meninges surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Pneumococcal meningitis may cause septicemia leading to severe damage to the organs. Like other forms of meningitis, pneumococcal meningitis is carried in the back of the nasal cavity and throat. It can be transmitted through coughing, saliva, and the exchange of respiratory fluids within close quarters. If suspected, pneumococcal meningitis should be treated quickly. 1 in 5 people who become sick with pneumococcal meningitis will die. 25% – 50% will experience long-term brain and neurological complications. Vaccinations are available. Upon the recommendation from a physician, those at risks such as children, the elderly, and those susceptible to pneumococcus infections should be vaccinated.
Chemical meningitis is also classified as non-infectious meningitis. Neoplastic meningitis (meningitis carcinomatosa, leptomeningeal carcinomatosis) is directly related to cancerous cells.
Meningitis B & C
There are different groups of bacteria that are separated into different types of bacterial meningitis. Meningitis C is an infection caused by a group of bacteria referred to as group C. This group of bacteria often is associated with some of the most prevalent and severe outbreaks of bacterial meningitis resulting in life-threatening outcomes. Similar to Meningitis B there is a vaccine available for group C meningitis to reduce the risk of contracting this type of bacteria.
Signs & Symptoms
The symptoms for all types of meningitis are often the same. It is difficult if not impossible to diagnose the type of meningitis a person may have without having the proper medical procedure. Meningitis symptoms may include:
- High Fever
- Severe headache
- Stiff neck
- Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
- Altered mental state
It can be tough to detect or might not even occur in neonates and infants. Parents that notice these symptoms should seek medical attention immediately! In children, symptoms such as:
- High temperatures
- High-pitched cry
- Dislike to being held
The onset of seizures, may not be a confirmation of meningitis but it is a sign that there is an immediate need for medical attention.
Early diagnosis and treatment are very important. If symptoms occur, the patient should see a doctor immediately. All types of meningitis are diagnosed by growing bacteria from a sample of the infected person’s spinal fluid, which is collected by performing a lumbar puncture (spinal tap). Results show whether or not the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) has increased white blood cells. Blood tests are also conducted to determine whether or not there is a significant increase or decrease in the white blood cell count.
There are various treatments for the various strains of meningitis. An overview of the treatments for the most common forms of meningitis can be found below.
Viral Meningitis Treatment
Bacterial Meningitis Treatment
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 most common types of bacterial meningitis should reduce the risk of dying from meningitis, although cases have varied from person to person.
Fungal Meningitis Treatment
Fungal meningitis is treated with antifungal medication. The medications are administered through an IV and the length of treatment can vary from patient to patient.
Parasitic Meningitis Treatment
It is unclear the effectiveness of treatment for parasitic meningitis as survivorship has been rare.
For bacterial meningitis there are vaccinations against certain strains. Vaccinations are available for Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus), Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus), and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). For those that have come in close contact with someone who has meningococcal meningitis, it may be advised that they take antibiotics to reduce the risk of contracting the disease.
There is no current vaccine available to prevent anyone from developing viral meningitis. A majority of those with enteroviruses aren’t symptomatic, so it’s tough to prevent the spread of viral meningitis. The best protection against viral meningitis is to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, keep surfaces such as door handles, remote controls and other devices that are touched by multiple people clean, avoid sharing drinking and eating utensils, cosmetics and such with other when you or they are sick and control insect and rodent infestations.
In general there is not a specific course of action to take to avoid fungal meningitis. People with weakened immune systems such as those with HIV are more at risk for contracting fungal meningitis. Those with HIV should avoid high fungi environments such as those with a high level bird droppings and places known to have high levels of fungi.
There is no vaccination or preventable activity against parasitic meningitis. It is found in warm fresh bodies of water such as lakes and rivers and therefore ins unavoidable for those that frequent water sports during warm parts of the year. Recommendations have been to avoid com in gin contact with sediment during water activities. If using irrigation devices to flush out sinuses it is imperative to use water that has been sterilized or distilled.
After Effects of Meningitis
Most people who get meningitis and septicemia survive, often without any after effects, but sometimes these diseases cause a range of disabilities and problems that can alter people’s lives. After effects may be temporary or permanent, physical or emotional.
People respond to their own situations differently, but frequently are unsure of what to expect after meningitis or septicemia. Relatives and friends may also feel the need for information, because the person who is recovering often needs a great deal of support. Getting over meningitis or septicemia makes major demands on people. Fortunately, many problems improve and disappear over time.
After effects most likely to be caused by Meningitis
- Memory loss
- Difficulty retaining information
- Lack of concentration
- Coordination problems
- Residual Headaches
- Hearing problems
- Loss of balance
- Learning difficulties (ranging from temporary learning deficiencies to long term mental impairment)
- Spasms of part of the body
- Cerebral palsy
- Speech problems
- Loss of sight
- Changes in sight
After effects most likely to be caused by Septicemia
- Stiffness in joints
- Skin damage
- Kidney damage
- Lung damage
Other emotional after-effects of both
- Temper Tantrums
- Moodiness or aggression
- Disturbed sleep
- Changes in Character
- Learning Difficulties
- Fear of Doctors and Hospitals
- Other behavioral and emotional problems
Most people recover with no after effects and not all after effects are permanent. The likelihood of getting after effects from meningitis or septicaemia depends on several factors including the type and severity of the illness. People who have been desperately ill may have spent a long time in intensive care. Research has shown that intensive care can be a distressing experience both for the person who has the illness and for their family.
Currently the majority of cases of bacterial meningitis and septicaemia are caused by meningococcal infection. This produces severely disabling after effects in about one in twelve survivors, although patients who have severe meningococcal septicaemia tend to have a worse outcome. After meningococcal disease, pneumococcal meningitis is the main type and it is more likely to produce serious damage. Neonatal meningitis occurring in the first month of life also carries a higher risk of after effects than most other forms.
A person recovering from viral meningitis may experience similar problems to someone who has had bacterial meningitis, but will rarely have severe after effects.
Careful and early follow up of patients discharged after meningitis and septicaemia is important. An estimated 25% of people who survive meningitis or septicaemia will have less obvious after effects, such as difficulties with coordination, concentration and memory. These are usually temporary.
Good and Bad Days
Although some people are completely back to normal within a matter of weeks but it can take many months to recover from meningitis and septicaemia. People often find that they have days when they feel very good, and others when they feel so bad that they worry they are becoming ill again. It is important to ‘listen’ to the needs of your body. There is no magic formula to feeling better, because the body needs time to recover fully. It is important to mention to employers and teachers that you may need time off. Help and support from your family doctor can be invaluable, and a doctor’s note will be necessary if you need a longer period of rest.