Frequently Asked Questions about Meningitis

What exactly is meningitis? 

Meningitis is inflammation of the meninges, the lining which surrounds the brain. The disease should not be confused with encephalitis which is inflammation of the brain itself.

How many types of meningitis are there?

Essentially, there are 5 distinct types of meningitis; viral, bacterial, fungal, parasitic and non-infectious.

Just how common is each type?

There are not exact figures available on a month-to-month basis. On average the CDC reports an estimated 3,000 cases per year in North America.

What causes Meningitis?

The bacteria which cause bacterial meningitis live in the back of the nose and throat region and are carried at any given time by between 10% and 25% of the population. It causes meningitis when it gets into the bloodstream and travels to the meninges. What triggers this movement in a small number of unfortunate people remains the subject of research. With viral meningitis, the viruses responsible can be picked up through poor hygiene or polluted water

How are the bacteria and virus spread?

Both are spread by coughing, sneezing and kissing but they should not be regarded as either water-borne or air-borne. It is a mistake to assume that the viruses and bacteria can be blown in the wind and float in water because they CANNOT live for very long outside the human body. Also see question 4 above.

Can anyone get meningitis?

Yes, although research shows that certain age groups are more susceptible than others. These are the under 5’s, the 16-25’s and the over-55’s.

Is meningitis seasonal?

Either form can occur at ANY time but elsewhere in the world there is a pattern which shows that bacterial meningitis occurs more in the winter months (November-March inclusive) while viral meningitis sees most cases occurring during the summer months.

What are the after effects of meningitis? 

With both forms there will be a wide variation in exactly how the disease affects a sufferer in the long term. Tiredness, recurring headaches, short-term memory difficulties and concentration problems are often reported, as are temper tantrums, forgetting recently-learned skills and babyish behavior in children. Mood swings, aggression, balance problems and clumsiness can all make daily life difficult both for the sufferer and his/her family and friends but these should pass in time.  Deafness (permanent or temporary) is a more serious outcome, while epilepsy/seizures, sight problems and brain damage have been known but are relatively rare.

What are the main symptoms?

Again, with both forms there is a wide range which can onset in different ‘combinations’. In adults and older children vomiting, high temperature, severe headaches, neck stiffness, a dislike of bright lights, drowsiness, other joint pains and fits may be present. In babies and infants watch for fever with hands and feet feeling cold, vomiting, refusing feeds, high pitched crying, a dislike of handling, neck retraction, a staring expression, difficulty in waking and a pale or blotchy complexion.

Isn’t there a rash to watch for too?

Yes, and it is VERY important. It can occur in anyone of ANY age and can begin on ANY part of the body. It looks like small clusters of tiny pin pricks at the beginning, which can quickly develop into areas of skin damage. They are purple in color and will NOT turn white when pressed.

Why is the rash so important? 

The development of the rash in the way described in question 10 is a key indicator of septicemia (blood poisoning). If it is seen, it is ABSOLUTELY VITAL that the sufferer is taken to the nearest Emergency Room WITHOUT DELAY. Septicemia develops when the bacterium which causes meningitis multiples while it is in the bloodstream and if not treated quickly can be fatal or mean the loss of limbs or fingers/toes.

Do all the symptoms appear at once?

No. Some will appear while others may not appear at all. This can cause difficulties in diagnosing meningitis, complicated by the fact that many symptoms are like the common cold. However, over and above the symptoms themselves, it will become obvious to anyone close to the sufferer that he/she is becoming very ill, VERY quickly.

What should I do if I see anyone showing these symptoms?

Act quickly. Firstly, describe the symptoms as accurately as possible to the doctor. If you cannot reach him/her or if they cannot come immediately, get the person to the nearest ER and be prepared to insist on immediate attention.

Wouldn’t it be quicker to by-pass the family doctor?

It depends on your individual circumstances. Diagnosing the form of meningitis is complicated. You should contact both your family doctor and head for the emergency room if you feel your situation calls for so urgency.

Is it true there are different types of bacterial meningitis?

Yes, they are called strains and there are several worth mentioning; meningococcal, pneumococcal, Hib, TB and neonatal meningitis. TB and neonatal are very rare, and Hib (which almost exclusively affects under 4’s) has become rarer since the introduction of a vaccine for all under 4’s.

So meningococcal and pneumococcal are the most common strains?

Yes, pneumococcal meningitis tends to affect children, older people and anyone who has already had a chronic illness such as heart disease, liver disease or diabetes. Meningococcal is the most common strain and can be further sub-divided into three groups, commonly referred to as A, B, C.

What is the position on available vaccines?

There are vaccinations available through your family doctor. In some states vaccinations are also available through your local pharmacist.

What of the future of vaccines?

It is universally agreed that vaccine development is the route to take in fighting meningitis. Some new vaccines are currently being tested and the scientific community remains hopeful that further studies will be made in the next several years. While this research is highly complex, technological advances continue to be made.

Why do people fear meningitis?

People fear meningitis because of the low number of cases reported and the fact that there is very little information that has been explained to the public. Until the Meningitis Foundation of America began in 1997, the U.S. had no national organization working in this area offering advice and support to the general public. We believe that the public and opinion-formers, such as the media, are becoming increasingly aware of the facts about meningitis.

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