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What Is the Difference Between Sepsis and Meningitis?

Meningitis almost always causes a severe headache.
Examining a patient's blood sample may help diagnose sepsis.
Unlike sepsis, patients with meningitis almost always present with a fever.
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  • Written By: Patti Kate
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 22 October 2014
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There are major differences between sepsis and meningitis. Sepsis involves an infection, typically bacterial in nature, which is present throughout the bloodstream. Basically, the patient with sepsis will be subjected to contamination of the blood. Meningitis is caused by a bacterial or viral infection that has inflamed the meninges. The meninges consists of protective coverings surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Both conditions of sepsis and meningitis are extremely serious and require immediate medical treatment. Although these conditions have differences involving location of infection, both typically will require hospitalization. This is because both conditions involve toxin-producing microbes that may be fatal if the patient does not receive proper care.

One of the main differences between sepsis and meningitis is the presence of fever. With sepsis, fever may or may not be present. A patient with meningitis always has a fever. Both of these conditions may cause severe chills, nausea, and vomiting. Meningitis will typically always cause severe headache in most patients.

Patients who have a suppressed immune system may be subject to sepsis poisoning after suffering an open wound or infection. This may include patients suffering from Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) or a patient receiving chemotherapy. This response is more prevalent in the case of sepsis than with meningitis.

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Another major difference between sepsis and meningitis is in treatment. With viral meningitis, antibiotics are not effective, and therefore the disease needs to run its course with the patient receiving adequate rest and fluid intake. The exception to this is bacterial meningitis, which always needs to be treated with antibiotics. Patients affected with sepsis will invariably need a course of antibiotics to treat the infection.

Meningitis nearly always causes headache pain and neck stiffness. Sepsis rarely causes a symptom of a stiff neck, although a headache is likely. Meningitis patients may suffer from seizures in the advanced stages of the disease.

Yet another major difference between sepsis and meningitis is how they are diagnosed. The only sure way to properly diagnose a case of spinal meningitis is by examining a sample of spinal fluid. This is done by performing what is known as a spinal tap. Extracted from the spinal region of the patient, this fluid is examined under a high-powered laboratory microscope. Technicians look for a strain of bacteria present in the spinal fluid that is known to cause meningitis.

In attempting to diagnose sepsis, however, a spinal tap is not required. Diagnosis for sepsis is typically done by examining a sample of the patient's blood. White blood cells will typically be absent, and red blood cells will show degeneration. A culture will be performed on the patient's blood to see if the bacteria-causing agents are present, indicating sepsis. Findings may take anywhere from two to five days to make the diagnosis.

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Post 1

Although most people associate meningitis with children, adults can get it, too. Meningitis in adults also usually requires hospitalization and can lead to death.

Because so many people think meningitis only affects children, many adults may downplay symptoms like headaches, ear aches and stiff necks.

As with any illness, if symptoms get continually worse or don't go away after a few days, it is a good idea to seek medical attention, even if just to rule out more serious problems like meningitis or sepsis.

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