Meningitis is an inflammation of the fluid and lining around the brain and spinal cord. It's most often caused by germs that infect the fluid and lining. Viral meningitis (caused by a virus) is less serious. Most people get better with no treatment. Bacterial meningitis (caused by bacteria) is more serious. In some people, it can lead to lasting problems. These include brain damage, hearing loss, and paralysis. When not treated quickly, bacterial meningitis can be fatal, sometimes within days.
What are the risk factors for meningitis?
Anyone can get meningitis. But the following persons are at greatest risk:
- Children younger than 5
- Older adults
- People who have had their spleen removed
- People who are more likely to come in contact with meningitis germs (such as children in childcare centers, students in college dorms, and soldiers in military barracks)
How does meningitis spread?
- Droplets: Meningitis germs spread through the air in droplets when someone with the infection coughs, sneezes, laughs, or talks. You can breathe in the germs. Or, your hands can transfer the germs to your eyes, nose, or mouth.
- Person-to-person: You can come in contact with the germs if you share food, a drinking glass, eating utensils, or a toothbrush with an infected person. Meningitis germs can also be spread through kissing.
- Direct spread: The germs that cause meningitis can spread to the brain and spinal cord from an infection in another part of the body.
- Fecal-oral: People infected with viral meningitis have the virus in their stool. When they don't wash their hands well after using the bathroom, they can spread the germs to objects, such as telephones and doorknobs. If you touch the same objects, you can pick up the germs and then transfer them to your mouth.
What are the symptoms of meningitis?
- Stiff neck
- Sensitivity to light
- Nausea and vomiting
How is meningitis diagnosed?
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): This is the best way to diagnose meningitis. An injection of anesthetic is given to ease pain. Then, a needle is inserted into the back. A small sample of the cerebrospinal fluid (fluid that surrounds the brain and spine) is taken.
- Imaging tests: X-rays and CT scans of the chest and skull may be done to look for swelling and inflammation.
How is viral meningitis treated?
There are no medications to treat most types of viral meningitis. Viral meningitis often resolves on its own in about a week. To help speed healing:
- Rest in bed.
- Drink lots of fluids, such as water, juice, and warm soup, to prevent dehydration. A good rule is to drink enough so that you urinate your normal amount.
- Ask the doctor about over-the-counter medications for headache and fever.
- Avoid bright lights, which may bother your eyes.
- Call the doctor if symptoms worsen or there are signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth, intense thirst, and little or no urination.
How is bacterial meningitis treated?
Hospital care is needed for bacterial meningitis. In the hospital, fluids and antibiotics are given through an IV (intravenous) line. Medications to reduce inflammation may also be given. When symptoms are severe, a tube to aid breathing may be needed.
Vaccines for bacterial meningitis
Starting at 2 years of age, some children in the United States should receive a vaccine that helps prevent one type of bacterial meningitis. Other vaccines are given to older children, teens, and adults. Your doctor can tell you which vaccines are right for you and your family.
To help prevent meningitis
- Wash your hands often with soap and water. If you can't wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand gel containing at least 60 percent alcohol.
- Avoid sharing personal items, such as food, drinking glasses, eating utensils, or towels.
- If you have had close contact with someone who has meningitis, ask your doctor whether you should take antibiotics to prevent infection.
Source: Krames StayWell