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Meningitis is a disease caused by inflammation of the membranes—known as meninges—that surround the brain and spinal cord. This condition—which can be severe, depending on what type is contracted—is usually caused by an infection of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)–the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
The inflammation associated with meningitis often causes the three hallmark signs and symptoms of this condition:
The disease is contagious and is spread through the exchange of respiratory droplets resulting from coughing or sneezing, or from direct contact, like kissing.
Meningitis may be acute with a quick onset of symptoms, or it can be chronic, with slowly developing and longer lasting symptoms of a month or more in duration. Quick recognition of this condition is vital, as certain types of meningitis it can quickly lead to serious illness and death.
Meningitis may develop secondary to numerous causes; however, it is usually caused by bacteria or viruses.
Bacteria. Acute bacterial meningitis is the most common form of meningitis. Approximately 80 percent of all cases are acute bacterial meningitis. This usually occurs as a result of bacteria entering the blood stream and then traveling to the brain and spinal cord. However, it can also occur secondary to direct infection of the meninges secondary to chronic ear or sinus infection or skull trauma. As a result of the rapid inflammation and swelling, blood flow to the brain is interrupted, which may cause a stroke or even death. The most common types of bacteria that cause acute bacterial meningitis are Streptococcus pneumoniae, Nisseria meningitides (meningococcus), Haemophilus influenzae (haemophilus), and Listeria monocytogenes.
Viruses. According to the Mayo Clinic, “each year, viruses cause a greater number of cases of meningitis than do bacteria.” That being said, viral meningitis is usually mild and often clears on its own. The most common viruses that cause meningitis include enteroviruses, herpes simplex virus, HIV, mumps, and West Nile virus.
More rare causes include physical injury, cancer, or medications.
Risk factors for developing meningitis include:
A diagnosis of meningitis will likely include a medical history, physical exam, and laboratory tests. After assessing current medical problems and medications, your doctor will assess you for the hallmark symptoms and signs of meningitis, which are headache, fever, and stiff neck.
If your physician deems meningitis as a likely diagnosis, he or she will likely order a laboratory test to verify the presence of the conditions. Tests for meningitis include:
Symptoms of meningitis include:
Acute bacterial meningitis is a rare, but potentially deadly infection. According to the National Meningitis Association, “the disease strikes quickly and has devastating complications, including hearing loss, brain damage, limb amputations, loss of kidney function, and in some cases, death.”
A diagnosis of meningitis can be frightening. However, with prompt diagnosis and treatment, prognosis is often excellent and full recovery can be expected. While being treated and once recovered, some things you can do to help yourself cope and to prevent a future episode of meningitis:
There is no standard screening test for meningitis.
Prevention of meningitis is most effective with the use of the meningococcal vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, recommend the meningococcal vaccine for:
Several treatments are available for meningitis and depend on the type of meningitis.
There is no viable alternative to modern medicine for treating meningitis. If it is infectious in nature, such as bacterial, it is vital that you receive proper antibiotic treatment. If the meningitis is secondary to trauma, cancer, or a drug allergy, it is also crucial the cause of the condition is quickly controlled and treated.
In addition to the standard medical treatments, patients are encouraged to utilize other complementary treatment options, such as acupuncture, massage, exercise, and meditation.
After completing treatment, you’ll need regular follow-up care to monitor your overall health and watch to make sure your recovery is complete and to avoid potential future episodes of meningitis. Your primary care physician and/or hospital from which you received treatment should coordinate your follow-up care.
Meningitis symptoms may often seem like the flu or other common diseases. Talk to your doctor if you have symptoms that worry you and don’t go away.
Treating meningitis may take more than one type of specialist. The doctors on your health care team may include:
You can find a doctor near you through one of these sites:
When you go to see your doctor, it’s good to have a list of the questions you’d like to have answered. Take a moment to write down some of the things you want to know. Your questions for your doctor might include some of these:
Other useful resources to help you learn about meningitis can be found at:
National Meningitis Association
Meningitis Foundation of America
Meningitis Research Foundation
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