What is Bacterial Meningitis?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2019
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Bacterial meningitis is a life threatening infection seen in the membranes which surround the brain and spinal cord. People can die from bacterial meningitis in a matter of a few hours, making it critical for treatment to be provided as soon as possible. With rapid treatment, many patients have a very good prognosis. If treatment is delayed, a patient may experience an insult to the brain which leads to disability or the patient could die as a consequence of the infection.

Several bacteria can cause bacterial meningitis. They can cross the barrier which normally keeps organisms out of the brain as a result of aggressive sinus and ear infections or head trauma which creates an open wound. Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, and Haemophilus influenzae type b have all been linked with bacterial meningitis. As they enter the cerebrospinal fluid which surrounds the brain and spinal cord, the immune system responds, causing inflammation.

The trinity of symptoms which characterize bacterial meningitis are: headache, stiff neck, and fever. The patient may also develop nausea, confusion, and fatigue. In very young children sometimes these symptoms are not as identifiable and the patient may instead be restless and fussy. Complications of the inflammation can include blood clots, stroke, and brain herniation, in which the brain swells and cell death occurs as the pressure inside the skull increases. Patients can develop seizures, go into shock, or fall into a coma if they are not treated.


As soon as a doctor identifies bacterial meningitis, intravenous antibiotics are administered. An antibiotic cocktail is usually used because there is not enough time to find out which organism is responsible. Supportive therapies may be provided to help the patient breathe and to address complications which may arise, such as surgery to relieve pressure inside the skull. If the treatment is successful, the patient may make a full recovery. Patients who develop cognitive deficits as a result of bacterial meningitis can benefit from physical, speech, and other forms of therapy to help them remap their brains to recover from the injury to the brain.

The organisms which cause bacterial meningitis are contagious, but intimate contact is usually required to pass them from person to person. People can reduce their risks of developing or passing on this dangerous infection by washing their hands regularly and observing basic sanitation guidelines such as covering their mouths and noses while sneezing. In addition, a vaccine is available to protect people against some of the organisms which cause bacterial meningitis, and is often recommended for people who will be living in close quarters like college dorms and military barracks.


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Post 3

Is it true that when brain swells due to meningitis, a hole must be drilled in the skull to relieve pressure? Otherwise the person will die right?

Post 2

@turquoise-- Meningitis and complications caused by the disease are not very common anymore in developed countries but not unseen either. There is a vaccination for meningitis (meningococcal vaccine) that children and adolescents can receive.

The occurrence of meningitis decreased in New Zealand after the use of meningitis vaccination spread. There was a little girl named Charlotte who survived bacterial meningitis in New Zealand in the 2000s. She was only about one year old when she developed meningitis. The disease led to gangrene and they had to amputate her arms and legs. After survival, she became an important example and her family spread the message about meningitis and prevention.

Post 1

Bacterial meningitis is usually linked to children. My best friend growing up had a sister with mental retardation which resulted from childhood meningitis. They were able to save her life but damage to the brain had already occurred by that time. This is why doctors tell parents to take their infants and children to the hospital when they appear ill. Stiff neck and neck pain are some of the major meningitis symptoms to look for in children.

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