Meningitis is the swelling of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Most commonly, meningitis is caused by a virus and will get better without treatment; however the disease is occasionally caused by a bacterial infection.
Bacterial meningitis is very serious. Even with treatment, it can result in brain damage or death. Immediate hospitalization is required.
Symptoms of bacterial meningitis can come on quickly or appear over several days. It can often look like influenza. Usually symptoms come on between three and seven days after exposure. The most common symptoms include:
- severe headaches
More tellingly an infected person is likely to have a stiff neck or hold themselves with their head and neck arched backwards. Other symptoms include changes in mental status such as confusion, decreased alertness and agitation. Rapid breathing, a fast heart rate, vomiting, light sensitivity or seizures may also occur.
Less common symptoms of bacterial meningitis include the appearance of a rash that looks similar to a bruise, loss of strength or feeling in the face and painful joints.
Infants are the highest-risk group for bacterial meningitis and babies younger than one month are especially so. Symptoms of bacterial meningitis in babies include bulging fontanelles (the soft spots on babies’ heads between skull plates), poor feeding and increased irritability. Headache and neck stiffness may not occur or may be hard to notice. Other signs in babies include lack of alertness, inactivity, vomiting and abnormal reflexes. In older children, confusion may present as the inability to maintain eye contact.
While infants are most at risk, anyone can contract bacterial meningitis. Those who travel to sub-Saharan Africa, those on certain immune-suppressing drugs and people who spend time in community settings (like college dormitories) have a higher risk of contracting the disease.
There are no definitive symptoms to distinguish between bacterial and viral meningitis, so if symptoms of meningitis occur it is important to see a doctor immediately. If the doctor also suspects meningitis, he may do a spinal tap to test the cerebrospinal fluid to confirm. Blood cultures, chest x-rays and CT scans of the head can also confirm.
If the doctor confirms meningitis (or cannot confirm but suspects it), the patient will likely be admitted to the intensive care unit for treatment and observation. Managing and monitoring breathing and blood pressure is first attended to and intravenous antibiotics are a common course. Steroids are also sometimes given if the patient is extremely ill. If difficulty breathing is a symptom a breathing tube may be inserted as well.
Several different types of germs cause bacterial meningitis and can be contagious. Typically the bacteria spread through the exchange of respiratory secretions like kissing – not through casual contact or simply being in the same room. The bacteria can exist in the throat or nose of health person without causing the disease. Most of the strains of bacteria that cause meningitis are not as contagious as influenza or the common cold.