Meningitis is the infection and inflammation of the membranes (also known as meninges) and fluids (cerebrospinal fluid) surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The most common causes of meningitis are bacteria and viruses, and the victims of the infection are typically children under the age of five. Bacterial meningitis is typically more severe in nature than the viral variety.
The early symptoms of meningitis are often mistaken for those of influenza (the flu). Thus, people experiencing severe symptoms similar to those of the flu should consider seeking medical attention, particularly if the person is a child younger than five years of age, in which case the child’s parents should bring him or her to a doctor to be examined.
Anyone experiencing the following symptoms should seek immediate medical care:
- A high fever resulting in the loss of appetite
- Severe, intense and/or worsening headaches
- Frequent vomiting
- Confusion and/or disorientation
- Stiff Neck
- Skin rash (particularly near the armpits, on the hands or on the feet)
- Sensitivity to light
- Small subepidermal hemorrhages
- Shock, coma or convulsions
Some types of meningitis are contagious. A person can be exposed to the bacteria when someone with meningitis coughs or sneezes. The bacteria can also spread through kissing, the sharing of utensils, cigarettes, etc. Living or working in the immediate vicinity of someone with the disease may also pose a significant risk of contacting the disease.
Meningitis strikes suddenly, usually accompanied by a high fever, severe headache and vomiting. As the disease progresses, the brain swells and may begin to bleed. The disease is potentially lethal, resulting in fatalities in about one in every ten cases.
Many of those who survive meningitis may have serious long-term neurological complications such as vision and/or hearing loss, brain damage and loss of the ability to speak.
The disease occurs most frequently in young children under the age of five, young adults ages 18-24 and senior citizens. The predominant theory is that this is largely due to the congregation tendencies of those individuals.
College students living in dormitories, personnel on military bases, boarding schools and daycare centers are all at an increased risk of meningococcal meningitis, largely because infectious diseases tend to spread quickly when large groups of people congregate.
There have been studies suggesting that smoking and drinking alcohol may increase one’s risk of meningitis. The theory at play here is that those activities may suppress a person’s immune system, thereby making him or her more susceptible to the disease.
The definitive diagnosis of meningitis is usually made by way of analysis of a small sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is extracted through a procedure known as a spinal tap (lumbar puncture).
Acute bacterial meningitis requires immediate treatment with intravenous antibiotics which help ensure recovery and reduce the risk of complications. The antibiotic or combination thereof used depends upon the type of bacteria causing the meningitis. Corticosteroids are often administered to help prevent hearing loss — one of the most common long-term complications of the disease.
Mild cases of viral meningitis are are usually treated with bed rest, plenty of fluids and sometimes analgesics to help reduce fever and body aches.
If the herpes virus causes the meningitis, antiviral medication may also be prescribed.
Reducing risk factors for meningitis starts with avoiding exposure to unnecessary upper respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Something as simple as careful handwashing is among the best ways to stave off infection and thereby reduce the risk of meningitis.
Parents should teach their children to wash their hands often and thoroughly. Getting enough rest, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet are all ways to boost the immune system, which in turn helps to prevent diseases like meningitis.
Vaccines are now available for hemophilus influenza and pneumococcal meningitis, and can be administered starting at around two months of age. Another vaccine exists that offers some degree of protection against meningococcal meningitis.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College Health Association recommend the vaccine for college students.