Meningitis is a serious illness that has the potential to become fatal within hours. It involves an infection and inflammation of the meninges, which are the fluidic membranes that surround and protect both the spinal cord and the brain. This illness has two forms: bacterial and viral.
Viral meningitis can be caused by any number of viruses spread by human to human contact or from insect bites, particularly from mosquitoes. This disease is rarely serious and resembles a cold or flu. Although very unpleasant, it is usually resolved on its own without medical intervention. Bacterial meningitis, however, is mainly caused by the bacteria called Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), Streptococcus pneumoniae or Neisseria meningitides. The bacteria that cause this dangerous form multiply rapidly, and when gone untreated, can cause brain damage and death.
The symptoms of this disease often resemble the flu, although they are more serious. They tend to come on very quickly and include severe headache, stiff neck, fever, rash, delirium or a vacant state, nausea, vomiting and sometimes seizures. Not all of these symptoms need be present for a person to be ill with meningitis. In particular, children under the age of two may only appear to be sleepy, vomit and refuse to eat. Any sign of any illness in an infant under three months of age should be considered a potential emergency.
Because the symptoms can resemble other less serious illnesses, many unnecessary deaths occur each year. This is especially true for adolescents and adults who decide to see if their symptoms clear up without seeking medical care. Meningitis is an insidious illness, and people with symptoms might benefit from adopting the adage “better safe than sorry.”
This disease is diagnosed by performing a spinal tap. A spinal tap involves drawing the spinal fluid from the spinal canal with a needle. A culture is then preformed by placing the fluid in a special machine that accelerates the growth of the bacteria, which, if present, can be seen and identified under a microscope.
Bacterial meningitis is effectively treated with antibiotics. Early diagnosis and treatment reduce the risk of death to below 15%. Viral meningitis is not treatable with antibiotics. Severe cases affecting those with compromised immune systems, the very young and the very old must receive medical supervision and care while the virus runs its course.
Meningitis is a contagious illness, but fortunately it is not as contagious as the flu or the common cold. It affects approximately 25,000 people in the United States annually, which amounts to .01% of the population. It is spread through prolonged contact with respiratory secretions such as coughing or sneezing, or with saliva when kissing or sharing drinks. It is important for a person to seek medical care if one knows or suspects that one has come in contact with an infected person, regardless of the length of exposure.
Bacterial meningitis can be prevented with vaccines. In the U.S., many states require that all children be vaccinated for certain types before attending school. The widespread use of vaccines in developed countries makes this disease much less prevalent than countries that do not have access to these vaccines. Sadly, countries that have a largely unvaccinated population suffer from deadly epidemics. Travelers should always take precautions before entering into developing countries that have outbreaks of meningitis and other illnesses that are rare in countries that employ vaccinations.