Meningitis is a disease related to brain/spinal cord causing severe headache and fever. The meninges are soft membranes that cover the brain which becomes swollen during this infection. Meningitis is caused by virus and sometimes by bacteria or fungus. If detected in early stages, this disease can be managed by suitable medications but if ignored it can cause serious complications or even death. This infection occurs mostly in children or young adults.
Meningitis is of two types namely viral meningitis (caused by virus which does not become very serious) and bacterial meningitis (caused by bacterial infection and can be life threatening).
Some of the symptoms of meningitis resemble that of influenza. It causes high fever (developed suddenly), headache and stiffness in the neck. It may also cause nausea, vomiting, confusion of thoughts, difficulty in concentrating and sleepiness. Many children would develop sudden seizures with high fever. The child may become very sensitive to light and may have difficulty in eating/drinking.
In infants meningitis symptoms do not cause headache or stiff neck, but the child may develop high fever with constant crying. He may not be active as before and for some infants a tiny spot is seen on the baby’s forehead. He may develop seizures, rash and refuse to eat. If you observe any of the above symptoms in your child/infant, visit your doctor immediately. The more delay you make the more will be the complication. Only a doctor can distinguish the type of meningitis and sometimes bacterial meningitis is very deadly.
Very often, meningitis is caused by viral infection but in some cases bacterium can cause meningitis and in rare cases even fungus can cause this infection. The disease is contagious and can spread easily by droplets of cough through air. Bacteria would enter the body and travel to the brain gradually. Sometimes it may invade the soft mucous membranes (meninges) of your brain after sinusitis/ear infection/skull fracture or sudden fall.
Some of the bacteria that cause meningitis include streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitis, Hemophilus influenza, and Listeria monocytogenes. Vaccines are available for preventing many of the above mentioned bacterial infection. Viral meningitis is often caused by enteroviruses and most of them are not serious and does not require immediate treatment. The virus will be infecting small children and infants during late summer or early fall. In rare cases meningitis may become chronic causing symptoms of high fever, confusion, nausea and vomiting for weeks together. Often it attacks people of weak immunity. Meningitis can also be caused by allergic reactions of medications, certain chemicals and some cancer types like sarcoidosis.
You are putting your child’s life at risk for developing meningitis if you are not properly vaccinating him. Meningitis often occurs on infants and young children and hence children below 6 years have increased risk for developing this infection. Bacterial infections can occur on individuals below 20 years and this is more particular for those who live in community settings.
Since meningitis is contagious, the infected person can easily spread the disease on camps, college dormitories and boarding schools. Being pregnant puts you under risk of developing listeriosis (bacterial meningitis). Individuals with weakened immune system (having AIDS, diabetes etc.) are more susceptible to develop meningitis than others. Those who have recently undergone spleen surgery are at high risk.
Meningitis, if left untreated can cause serious complications like loss of hearing, poor concentration, disability in learning, seizures, brain damage, kidney failure, gait and sometimes death.
Your doctor would look for the above symptoms and order for certain diagnostic tests like blood culture and imaging tests like CT or MRI scan. It would reveal inflammation of meninges or sinus infection. He may do a lumbar puncture for collecting cerebrospinal fluid and testing it in the laboratory. The result would also clearly indicate the type of bacterium that has caused the infection.
Your doctor should identify the type of meningitis infection before starting the course of treatment. Bacterial meningitis are treated with antibiotics (intravenously) or by oral corticosteroid medications. In case of any ear infection or sinus infection it has to be treated separately. Viral meningitis can be managed by over the counter medications and by taking complete bed rest. In severe cases, antiviral medication is prescribed.
The infected person has to drink plenty of fluids to keep hydrated and can use pain relievers for reducing body pain and fever. If the result indicates it is fungal meningitis then your doctor may prescribe antifungal drugs. Chronic meningitis is often of fungal origin. If meningitis has developed due to weakened immunity your doctor would prescribe suitable cortisone drugs.
The best way to prevent meningitis is to get your child completely immunized. Every child should take regular shots for preventing measles, pneumonia, chickenpox and influenza. Meningococcal vaccine is available for preventing bacterial meningitis. Follow good hygiene by washing your hands thoroughly with medicated soap solution before eating and after using the toilet. Avoid spending more of your time in crowded places which puts you under risk of developing the infection.
Exercise regularly and stay healthy to keep your immunity in good condition. Pregnant women would be cautious while eating outside foods especially when eating hot dogs/undercooked meat. Choose only pasteurized milk products and check the label twice before consuming it. Infants of 2 months age can be vaccinated for Hib (Haemophilus influenza) and Pneumococcal vaccine can be given for children (2-5 years). Now single dose of Meningococcal conjugate vaccine can be given for children (11-13 years) with additional shot at 16 years.