Meningitis: Critical Facts You Need To Know

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Meningitis Critical Facts You Need To Know

The word “meningitis” strikes fear into the heart of every parent. This serious illness is known for its fast onset, devastating after-effects and sometimes deadly consequences, where minutes can literally make the difference between life and death. Anyone can get meningitis, but young children and teenagers are especially at risk. However, not all forms of meningitis are life-threatening, so what are the different forms, how do you recognize the symptoms, and what should you do if you suspect meningitis?

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the soft membranes that are wrapped around the spinal cord, protecting it from shocks and jolts as we move. Because the spine is directly connected to the brain, any infection that begins there can easily spread to the brain, causing inflammation, swelling, and reduced functionality. If it affects the brain’s control of our vital organs, this can lead to death.

There are five forms of meningitis, although three are comparatively rare.

Bacterial meningitis

Also known as meningococcal disease, this form is the most serious, requiring swift emergency treatment. It is caused by bacteria such as streptococcus, TB or E-coli, and often leads to septicemia (blood poisoning) which can lead to severe brain damage and even death. There are several strains (i.e. A, B, C, and Y), and it mainly affects children under five years old and teenagers aged 15-19, spreading through close contact.

Bacterial meningitis symptoms include:

  • High fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • High pitched crying in babies
  • Sensitivity to light
  • A stiff neck
  • An altered mental state (such as floppiness or resistance to being held)
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • A characteristic ‘pin-prick’ rash or pattern of purple blotches that don’t disappear when you roll a glass over the skin. This is caused by septicemia and is a clear sign of meningitis. However, not all patients have a rash, so don’t rely on this alone to diagnose meningitis

This form of meningitis is a medical emergency. If you suspect bacterial meningitis, don’t delay, because prompt antibiotic treatment is critical—call the emergency services immediately. The patient will need intravenous antibiotics and intensive care treatment, which may last for some time. Septicemia can cause limb damage that may require amputation, as well as brain damage and other serious health issues that can be life-changing.

Viral meningitis

This strain is much more common but has less serious consequences. It often mimics flu symptoms, and the effects can be so mild that it’s often mistaken for the flu. These symptoms include headache, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite and lethargy. Adults can also show symptoms of bacterial meningitis, such as sensitivity to light and a stiff neck.

Viral meningitis mainly affects children during the summer months and those with weakened immune systems. It’s caused by viruses such as the common cold, flu, mumps or measles. Treatment is similar to that recommended for the flu—rest, painkillers when necessary, plenty of fluids, and perhaps anti-sickness medication if vomiting is a problem. Viral meningitis usually lasts about two weeks, but some people have longer term after-effects such as headaches, tiredness and impaired memory.

Less common forms of meningitis

The other forms of meningitis are far less common. Fungal meningitis affects those with lowered immunity, such as transplant patients and those with HIV. Parasitic meningitis is caused by the naegleri fowleri parasite, which lives in warm fresh water. It enters the body through the nose, perhaps when someone is swimming in infected water, and it’s usually fatal. Finally, non-infectious meningitis can be caused by a head injury, brain surgery or underlying health condition like cancer or lupus. All these forms show similar symptoms to other types of meningitis.

Meningitis vaccines

There are vaccines that can prevent some forms of bacterial meningitis and form part of the routine vaccination program for infants. Older children or adults can also have vaccinations if they’re at risk, such as if they’re college freshmen or traveling abroad.

However, vaccinations can’t protect against every kind of meningitis, so it’s essential to know which symptoms to look out for and to seek medical attention immediately if you’re in any doubt at all. Time is of the essence with meningitis, and every second counts.