Bacterial Meningitis can be life threatning; outbreaks increasing

Pamela Egan Practical Practitioner

By: Pamela Egan, FNP-C CDE

Bacterial Meningitis can be life threatning; outbreaks increasing

Dear Pam,

I’ve had a chronic sinus infection with severe headaches. I’m on my third antibiotic. When should I worry about meningitis?

That is an excellent question since bacterial meningitis occurs most often from late winter to early spring. It usually causes serious illness and can be life-threatening.

The symptoms of bacterial meningitis usually develop suddenly and last for two to three weeks.

Meningitis is a relatively rare infection that affects the delicate membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord.

Meningitis used to occur most commonly in infants, but because a vaccine is now given to infants, this infection now occurs mainly in adults. Many forms of meningitis can be contagious among people in close contact – in classrooms and university dorms, for example.

Since 1991 outbreaks of bacterial meningitis have been increasing for reasons not yet understood. Viral meningitis tends to be less severe, and most people recover completely. Fungal meningitis is the most rare and generally occurs only in people with weak immune systems, such as people with AIDS.

Meningitis is almost always caused by another bacterial or viral infection that began elsewhere in the body, like the ears, sinuses or upper respiratory tract. The bacterial form of meningitis is an extremely serious illness that requires immediate medical care. If not treated quickly, it can lead to death within hours or to permanent brain damage in about 30 percent of people.

The bacteria can spread from person to person through coughing and sneezing. If you are around someone who has bacterial meningitis, you should contact your healthcare provider to see if anything needs to be done so you don’t become infected.

In most instances, bacterial meningitis develops when bacteria get into the bloodstream from an infection in the sinuses, ears or other part of the upper respiratory tract. The bacteria then travel through the bloodstream to the brain.

The most common symptoms of meningitis include: fever, severe and persistent headache, stiff and painful neck, especially when trying to touch the chin to the chest, vomiting, confusion and seizures.

Other symptoms include: sluggishness, muscle aches and pains, muscle weakness, and strange feelings (such as tingling) or weakness throughout the body. Eye sensitivity and eye pain from bright lights, skin rash, dizzy spells may also be experienced.

A procedure called a lumbar puncture or spinal tap, will determine whether you have meningitis. Samples of your blood, urine and secretions from your nose or ears may also be examined.

The bacterial form of meningitis is especially life-threatening and must be treated quickly. It is important to go to the nearest emergency facility right away if you suspect you have meningitis.

If you have bacterial meningitis, you will continue to receive antibiotics until the infection is cured- possibly as long as two weeks.

Because bacterial meningitis is contagious, people close to you are at risk of becoming infected.

If you have college-aged children, I would strongly recommend the meningococcal meningitis vaccine for them, especially if they live in a dormitory.


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