Meningitis is an infection of the fluid of a person’s spinal cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain. People sometimes refer to it as spinal meningitis. Meningitis is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Knowing whether meningitis is caused by a virus or bacterium is important because the severity of illness and the treatment are different. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment, while bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result in brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disability. For bacterial meningitis, it is also important to know which type of bacteria is causing the meningitis because antibiotics can prevent some types from spreading and infecting other people. Before the 1990s, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis, but new vaccines are being given to all children as part of their routine immunizations.
This has reduced the occurrence of invasive disease due to H. influenzae. Today, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria meningitidis are the leading causes of bacterial meningitis. The bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis live in the back of the nose and throat area and are carried at any given time by between 10% and 25% of the population. It causes meningitis when it gets into the bloodstream and travels to the meninges. What triggers this movement in a small number of unfortunate people remains the subject of research. With viral meningitis, the viruses responsible can be picked up through poor hygiene or polluted water.
In blood, infection is fought off by white blood cells. In the spinal fluid, there are no white blood cells…and there is nothing there to fight off infection. Once the infection starts, it can spread very quickly throughout the body. Meningitis can cause a great deal of brain damage in just a few hours, and can kill in 24 hours. However Bacterial meningitis can be treated with a number of effective antibiotics. It is important, however, that treatment be started early in the course of the disease. Appropriate antibiotic treatment of most common types of bacterial meningitis should reduce the risk of dying from meningitis to below 15%, although the risk is higher among the elderly.
The best thing to do is go to a hospital and speak to a infectious disease specialist. They will give the patient an antibiotic, which is not always promising, or a vaccine, which is highly effective. When the disease is under control, there will be a lot of time to deal with the remaining effects. They will also give the people that have close contacts with the patient an antibiotic or vaccine so that they will not catch meningitis and it will also get rid of any meningitis that might be living their throat.
Some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious. The bacterium is spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (i.e., coughing, kissing). Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as things like the common cold or the flu, and they are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been.
High fever, headache, and stiff neck are common symptoms of meningitis in anyone over the age of 2 years. These symptoms can develop over several hours, or they may take 1 to 2 days. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, discomfort looking into bright lights, confusion, and sleepiness. In newborns and small infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to detect, and the infant may only appear slow or inactive, or be irritable, have vomiting, or be feeding poorly. As the disease progresses, patients of any age may have seizures.
Something to watch for is a rash. It looks like small clusters of tiny pinpricks at the beginning; these quickly develop into areas of skin damage. They are purple in color and will not turn white when pressed. It is very important because this indicates that the patient has Septicemia (blood poisoning). Septicemia develops when the bacterium, that causes meningitis multiplies while it is in the bloodstream and if not treated quickly, can be fatal or mean the loss of limbs or fingers/toes.
The after effects of meningitis depend on how long the patient has had the disease. Tiredness, recurring headaches, short-term memory difficulties and concentration problems are often reported, so are temper tantrums, forgetting recently-learned skills and babyish behavior in children. Mood swings; aggression, balance problems and clumsiness can all make daily life difficult both for the sufferer and his/her family and friends but these should pass in time. Deafness (permanent or temporary) is a more serious outcome, while epilepsy/seizures, sight problems and brain damage have been known but are relatively rare.
The figures published by the CDC for 1994 shows that a total of 12,992 cases were reported to them. It is fatal in about 10% of cases. Viral meningitis is much more common but it is impossible to quote accurate figures because many mild cases may not even be reported by the sufferer to his/her doctor. Meningitis mostly occurs in winter months. (November-March inclusive) while viral meningitis sees most cases occurring during the summer months.
Very little has been explained to the public about meningitis. The public hasn’t acknowledged most incidents of meningitis they are normally isolated. It wasn’t until 1997; the Meningitis Foundation of America began. This foundation provides advice and support to the general public. They believe that the public will become more aware of meningitis and cases of meningitis can be detected earlier.
In a year, 4.5 children (per 100,000 population) between 1 month and 23 months will get meningococcal meningitis. The older you get, the more capable your body is of fighting off the infection.
Bacterial meningitis is fairly uncommon, but can be extremely serious. It is fatal in one in 10 cases and one in 7 survivors are left with severe handicap, such as deafness or brain injury.
Courtney from Study Moose
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