What is meningitis?
The meninges are membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis occurs when these membranes become inflamed, potentially causing serious complications for the nervous system.
There are three basic kinds of meningitis: viral, bacterial, and fungal. Of these three, viral meningitis is the most common, but bacterial is the most dangerous. People can contract meningitis at virtually any age, but the following groups are often more at risk than others:
- Young adults
- Those who live in a crowded setting
- Those who live with asplenia
- Those who travel to a region of the world where meningitis is more common
Meningitis is a serious condition that can cause a range of health problems. These may include:
Understanding these symptoms and getting them checked out is an important step toward early detection of meningitis.
Signs and symptoms of meningitis
The early stages of meningitis can be hard to distinguish from other illnesses. The first symptoms may resemble a flu but develop very quickly in just a few hours. Moreover, many of the common meningitis symptoms aren’t present in all cases.
Here are some of the most commonly reported symptoms of meningitis:
As mentioned, meningitis is an infection or inflammation of the meninges, the protective layers of tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Since the cervical spinal cord passes through the neck, you would most likely feel swelling of the meninges in the form of stiffness or pain while trying to move your neck.
You can feel the inflammation of the meninges that cover the brain in the form of headaches. It can be hard to tell the difference between a meningitis headache and a headache with another cause, such as a migraine.
Although some cases of meningitis occur alongside a rash that makes the difference easier to diagnose, this isn’t always the case, and it’s important to see a doctor if you have a long-lasting headache.
Skin rashes are one of the tell-tale signs of meningitis, especially in bacterial meningitis. These rashes may look like reddish or purple spots on the skin, resembling a series of flea bites or bruises.
Bacterial meningitis infections begin as a flu-like illness, but they can get worse quickly. The fever is a reaction of the immune system to the presence of pathogens, especially as bacteria invade the lining of the brain and spinal cord.
Other symptoms of meningitis can include:
Be sure to check with a health professional if you experience any of these symptoms.
Types of meningitis
There are three basic types of meningitis:
Viral meningitis is seldom life-threatening and affects many thousands of people each year. The most common cause of viral meningitis are enteroviruses, especially of the echovirus group. These spread most easily by hand-to-mouth transmission, mostly in young children.
Fungal meningitis is very rare in the United States. It comes from a fungal disease that enters the body through some other location and then spreads to the brain or spinal cord. People with weakened immune systems and babies born premature are most vulnerable to fungal meningitis.
Although bacterial meningitis infections aren’t common, and most people with this condition recover from it, they are very serious when they do occur. Bacteria that invade the bloodstream, especially as part of a condition like sepsis, are the most common route of infection. Bacterial meningitis is also contagious.
The nature of the meningitis infection that a person has will make a difference in their diagnosis and treatment.
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Causes of meningitis
Meningitis comes initially from certain viruses, fungi, or bacteria. It can spread through an exchange of saliva with someone who has contracted the illness. This can largely happen through kissing and other intimate contact, or sharing food, utensils, or oral personal hygiene equipment.
A meningitis diagnosis almost always begins with a physical exam. Doctors might check for Brudzinski’s sign, in which flexing your neck causes an automatic reflex in the knees or hips.
They may also conduct blood tests and computerized tomography (CT) scans, which can alert your doctor to the presence of infection or help them see swelling or inflammation around your brain or spinal cord.
Treatments for meningitis
The precise treatment for meningitis will depend on whether the infection is viral, bacterial, or fungal. Fungal meningitis can be treated with antifungal drugs, for example, while antibiotics will be prescribed for bacterial cases. Treatment for viral meningitis is medication for pain or fever and copious amounts of rest.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Bacterial Meningitis."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Fungal Meningitis."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Meningococcal Disease: Signs and Symptoms."
Columbia University Department of Neurology: "What You Must Know About Meningitis."
Harvard University Health Services: "Meningitis."
Meningitis Centre Australia: "Signs and Symptoms."
Medical Research Institute: "Migraine Versus Meningitis."
Meningitis Research Foundation: "After Effects."
Meningitis Research Foundation: "What causes viral meningitis?"
Meningitis Research Foundation: "What is the meningitis rash?"
National Meningitis Association: "Who is at risk?"
Principles and Practice of Hospital Medicine: "Meningitis and Encephalitis."
Seattle Children's: "Neck Pain or Stiffness."
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