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Meningitis: Types, Causes, Symptoms
and Treatment

Meningitis is often a serious and sometimes a fatal infection of the meninges. The meninges is a protective membrane that covers the brain and the spinal cord.

Meningitis is usually caused by bacteria or a virus, but sometimes it's caused by a fungal infection.

TYPES

Bacterial meningitis is the most serious form of infection. It can be fatal if not diagnosed and treated early.

Viral meningitis is caused by a virus. It is more common than bacterial meningitis and also less serious. The symptoms are similar to flu symptoms and therefore it often remains undiagnosed. The infection usually clears up within 10 days without any treatment. The most common symptoms for viral meningitis include a rash (caused by blood poisoning), sore throat, joint aches and headache.

Fungal meningitis is very rare. Fungal meningitis affects mostly people with immune deficiencies and it can be life threatening if it is not treated promptly.

CAUSES

The bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis are fairly common and typically associated with routine illnesses. Bacteria and viruses that infect the skin, urinary system, gastrointestinal tract or respiratory tract can travel to the meninges through cerebrospinal fluid. Cerebrospinal fluid is the fluid that circulates in and around the spinal cord. In some cases bacteria spread to the meninges from a severe head trauma, severe ear infection or severe sinus infection.

Meningitis can also result from non-infectious causes such as drug allergies, some types of cancer and inflammatory diseases.

SYMPTOMS

Symptoms vary and depend on the age of the person and the cause of the infection. Symptoms in both bacterial and viral meningitis resemble flu symptoms, especially in the early stages. Remember that bacterial meningitis can be fatal; it is therefore very important that meningitis be diagnosed and treated quickly. Symptoms of bacterial and viral meningitis can come on very quickly, without warning. Common symptoms include:

  • Fever;
  • Decreased consciousness;
  • Irritability;
  • Severe headache;
  • Light sensitivity;
  • A stiff neck;
  • Skin rash that resembles sunburn;
  • Seizures.

Infants often do not have these symptoms, the most common symptoms in infants include:

  • Extreme irritability;
  • Decreased consciousness;
  • High fever or low temperature;
  • They are usually difficult to comfort;
  • Yellowish tint to the skin;
  • Stiff body and neck;
  • Poor feeding;
  • A weak suck;
  • High pitched crying;
  • The soft spot on their head bulges.

DIAGNOSIS

If meningitis is suspected a doctor will do a lumbar puncture to collect a sample of spinal fluid. This test will show any sign of inflammation as well as whether it is bacteria or a virus causing the infection. The doctor will also take a medical history, do a physical evaluation and do some blood tests.

TREATMENT

A person who has viral meningitis may be hospitalized but they are sometimes allowed to recover at home if they are not too ill. Treatment includes:

  • Plenty of rest;
  • Plenty of fluids;
  • Pain medication.

If bacterial meningitis is diagnosed or even suspected, the patient will be hospitalized immediately. Doctors will start the patient on intravenous antibiotics. Fluids will be given through an IV to prevent dehydration. Corticosteroids may also be given to reduce the inflammation. If fluids have accumulated between the brain and the meninges, it may need to be drained or surgically removed.

HOW DOES MENINGITIS SPREAD?

Meningitis is usually the result of a contagious infection. These bacteria and viruses spread through coughing, sneezing, kissing, sharing of eating utensils, lip gloss, cigarettes, etc.

The bacteria and viruses live in your throat or nose and tiny drops of saliva contain these. The infections most commonly spread between people who live together.

RISK FACTORS

  • If you have not been immunized you are at increased risk.
  • Young children (younger than 5), young people (15 24) and older adults are at increased risk young children because they go to preschool or day care, young adults because they often go on trips or stay in a boarding school in high school or college and older adults because they often live in old age homes.
  • If you suffer from any form of immune deficiency, you are at increased risk because your immune system can't fight off routine infections.

COMPLICATIONS

Complications resulting from bacterial meningitis can be severe and often include neurological problems such as hearing loss, impaired vision and seizures. Some children also experience speech impairments, behavior problems and brain damage. In severe cases of bacterial meningitis, there may be organ failure and paralysis.

It should be noted, however, that not all people suffer these complications. If you only mildly suspect meningitis, you should see a doctor immediately. Prompt treatment will reduce the chances of complications.

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