Meningitis is an acute inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, known collectively as the meninges. It is caused by viral or bacterial infection, and marked by intense headache and fever, sensitivity to light, nausea and muscular rigidity. Bacterial meningitis requires emergency care. Meningitis can affect children and adults, but babies and young children are particularly vulnerable, as their immune system is not yet fully developed.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges. The meninges are the three membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can occur when fluid surrounding the meninges becomes infected.
Meningitis is almost always caused by a bacterial or viral infection that begins somewhere else in your body, like your ears, sinus or throat. But it can also, less commonly, be caused by:
- fungi and protozoa
- Autoimmune disorders
- cancer medications
Viral Meningitis: The most common – and least serious – type of meningitis is mostly caused by a group of viruses known as enteroviruses, which are most active in late summer and early autumn. However viruses such as herpes simplex virus, HIV, mumps, and chicken pox. West Nile virus can also cause viral meningitis.
Bacterial Meningitis: the second most common cause of meningitis can be caused by a range of bacteria, most commonly:
- Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus)
- Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus)
- Haemophilus influenzae (haemophilus)
- Listeria monocytogenes (listeria)
Aseptic Meningitis: Meningitis may also result from non-infectious causes. The term aseptic meningitis refers to cases of meningitis in which no bacterial infection can be found. This type of meningitis is usually caused by viruses, but it may also be due to a bacterial infection that has already been partially treated, when bacteria disappear from the meninges, or pathogens infect a space adjacent to the meninges (e.g. sinusitis). Endocarditis (an infection of the heart valves which spreads small clusters of bacteria through the bloodstream) may cause aseptic meningitis. Aseptic meningitis may also result from infection with spirochetes, a group of bacteria that includes Treponema pallidum (the cause of syphilis) and Borrelia burgdorferi (known for causing Lyme disease). Meningitis may be encountered in cerebral malaria (malaria infecting the brain) or amoebic meningitis, meningitis due to infection with amoebae such as Naegleria fowleri, contracted from freshwater sources.
Symptoms appear within three to six days after being exposed to the virus. The early symptoms of viral meningitis are very similar to those of the flu and other milder illnesses, so meningitis can be very difficult to identify at first. Viral meningitis produces first symptoms such as:
- neck stiffness
- nausea and vomiting
- muscle pain.
Viral meningitis is usually mild and often clears on its own, with the inflammation going away after about a week, but you may feel tired and have difficulty concentrating for some time.
With bacterial meningitis, the second most common type, the symptoms of bacterial meningitis come on quite suddenly. You become sick within a day and the disease develops rapidly, potentially causing serious health complications or even death in a matter of hours.
The symptoms are the same as for viral meningitis, but more severe. In addition to the above flu like symptoms, you may experience:
- sensitivity to light
- become unconscious
- get stiff in the neck
- have seizures
In some cases, meningitis also causes blood poisoning (sepsis). It is seen as red rashes or bruises on the skin. Seek emergency care if you see rashes or bruises.
Children and meningitis
Children can become seriously ill from bacterial meningitis as their immune system is less developed to fight infection. Symptoms can also be harder to spot in babies and toddlers as they cannot tell you how they are feeling, so it can be easy to miss early signs. Sometimes children can get meningitis after common viral infections, such as chickenpox.
Symptoms can vary and are sometimes mild – but you should seek emergency care if your child has:
- bleeding in the skin
- high fever
- turns pale and cold/sweaty
- sensitivity to light and sound
- nausea and vomiting
- stiff or sore neck
- stiff back
- acute sickness
Prevention and protection
Always seek medical attention for severe headaches and high fever to get a diagnosis. Follow your doctor’s advice and treatment.
Prescription-free painkillers can relieve headaches, for mild cases.
There are vaccines against many of the diseases that can cause meningitis. Some of them are part of the general vaccination program, such as measles. Others, such as TBE and chickenpox, are available at various vaccination clinics.
Your treatment is determined by the cause of your meningitis.
Viral meningitis may resolve on its own, but some causes of viral meningitis need to be treated with antiviral medications.
Bacterial meningitis requires instant hospitalization. Early diagnosis and treatment will prevent brain damage and death. Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics. There’s no specific antibiotic for bacterial meningitis. It depends on the bacteria involved.
Fungal meningitis is treated with antifungal medications.
Parasitic meningitis may include treating just the symptoms or attempting to treat the infection directly. Depending on the cause, this type of meningitis may get better without antibiotic treatment. If it worsens, however, your doctor may try to treat the infection itself.
When to consult a doctor
Seek urgent care if you or your child gets a high fever with headaches, small bleeding in the skin, seizures or becomes unconscious.
How APPOTEK can help
APPOTEK cannot help with meningitis.