by Kimberly Allen RN
Meningitis occurs when there is an inflammation of the thin membranes that cover your brain and spinal cord. These membranes are called meninges, thus the name. Meningitis usually affects people under the age of 30. in the past most infections occurred in children under 5years of age, however, with improved childhood vaccines the average age is now 25years. Meningitis can be caused by both bacteria and viruses, and in rare cases fungi. Viruses are the most common cause of meningitis, however bacterial meningitis is more serious. In the US bacterial meningitis develops in per 100,000 people every year. As most cases of viral meningitis are mild and therefore not reported the CDC has been unable to determine exactly how many cases of viral meningitis occur every year, however estimates are that it occurs at 10.9 per 100,000 people. It can occur in both males and females as well as in any race or ethnic group. People living in community settings like dormitories, barracks or refugee centers like those used for hurricanes and other natural disasters. Another place to find meningitis is day care centers where children are putting things in their mouths and touching everything. People with impaired immune systems are also at risk for developing meningitis. Meningitis is also more common in the summer and early fall.
Viral meningitis is by far the most common and it usually resolves itself with in 1-2 weeks. There are numerous viruses that can cause meningitis including those in the herpes family and more commonly enteroviruses which are responsible for at least 30% of the viral meningitis cases diagnosed in the US. Recently the West Nile Virus has also been causing meningitis.
Bacterial meningitis though less common is usually much more serious and can lead to brain damage even death. The pneumococcus bacteria is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in the US. This bacteria is most commonly known for causing pneumonia, ear and sinus infections, however if some of the bacteria gets into the bloodstream it can lead to meningitis. The meningococcus bacteria is also one of the leading causes of bacterial meningitis. It usually develops because bacteria from an upper respiratory infection have gotten into the bloodstream. This type of infection is highly contagious and usually occurs in teenagers and young adults. Up until the 1990’s the leading cause of bacterial meningitis was the haemophilus influenza bacteria or Hib bacteria. Then in the ’90’s the Hib vaccine became available and became part of the routine vaccination schedule significantly reducing the number of cases of this type of meningitis.
Many of the symptoms of meningitis are the same as those for the flu, especially in most cases of viral meningitis. These symptoms can manifest over a period ranging from several hours to a couple of days. Severe symptoms that you should report to your Dr immediately would include a high fever, a severe headache with nausea and vomiting and a stiff neck as well as confusion and seizures. Infants and newborns with meningitis will have a high fever and cry constantly. Their body as well as their neck is usually stiff and they will usually have seizures.
It’s important to seek medical attention immediately if you suspect you or someone else you know has symptoms of meningitis. It’s important for you Dr to determine if you have viral or bacterial meningitis because treatment depends on the type of meningitis you have. Viral meningitis will usually resolve itself with supportive care, however, bacterial meningitis requires immediate treatment with antibiotics as well as other medications like corticosteroids to help improve recovery and reduce the chances of complications. Because meningitis usually develops from other contagious infections one of the best ways to prevent the spread of infection is good hand washing. It’s important to use soap and water and wash your hands after using the bathroom and before eating. It’s also important to teach your children proper hand washing. Covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing also can significantly reduce the spread of infection. maintaining a healthy immune system can also prevent or reduce infections. And las but not least, one of the best ways to prevent meningitis is by completing the childhood vaccination schedule and keeping up with boosters.