What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an inflammation of the covering of the brain and
spinal cord---also called the meninges. It can be caused by viruses,
parasites, fungi, and bacteria. Viral (aseptic) meningitis is common; most
people recover fully. Medical management of viral meningitis consists of
supportive treatment and there is usually no indication for the use of
antibiotics. Parasitic and fungal meningitis are very rare. Bacterial
meningitis is very serious and may involve complicated medical, surgical,
pharmaceutical, and life support management.
There are two common types of bacteria that cause
- Strep pneumoniae causes pneumococcal meningitis;
there are over 80 subtypes that cause illness
- Neisseria meningitidis-meningococcal meningitis;
there are 5 subtypes that cause serious illness-A, B, C, Y, W-135
What are the symptoms?
Someone with meningitis will become very ill. The illness may
develop over one or two days, but it can also rapidly progress in a matter
of hours. Not everyone with meningitis will have the same
Children (over 1 year old) and adults with meningitis may
- Severe headache
- High temperature
- Sensitivity to bright lights
- Neck stiffness, joint pains
- Drowsiness or confusion
*In both children and adults, there may be a rash of tiny,
red-purple spots or bruises caused by bleeding under the skin. These can
occur anywhere on the body. They are a sign of blood poisoning
(septicemia), which sometimes happens with meningitis, particularly the
How serious is bacterial meningitis?
If it is diagnosed early and treated promptly, the majority of
people make a complete recovery. In some cases it can be fatal or a person
may be left with a permanent disability, such as deafness, blindness,
amputations or brain damage (resulting in mental retardation or paralysis)
even with prompt treatment.
How is bacterial meningitis spread?
Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as
contagious as diseases like the common cold or the flu, and they are not
spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person
with meningitis has been. The germs live naturally in the back of our
noses and throats, but they do not live for long outside the body. They
are spread when people exchange saliva (such as by kissing; sharing
drinking containers, utensils, or cigarettes).
The germ does not cause meningitis in most
people. Instead, most people become carriers of the germ for days,
weeks or even months. Being a carrier helps to stimulate your body's
natural defense system.
The bacteria rarely overcomes the body's immune
system and causes meningitis or another serious illness.
What is the risk of getting bacterial
The risk of getting bacterial
meningitis in all age groups is about 2.4 cases per 100,000 population per
year. However, the highest risk group for the most serious form of the
disease, meningococcal meningitis, is highest among children 2 to 18 years
How is bacterial meningitis diagnosed?
The diagnosis is usually based on a combination of clinical
symptoms and laboratory results from spinal fluid and blood. Spinal fluid
is obtained by a lumbar puncture (spinal tap).
How can bacterial meningitis be
Do not share food, drinks,
utensils, toothbrushes, or cigarettes. Limit the number of persons you
Vaccines against pneumococcal disease are recommended both for
young children and adults over 64. A vaccine against four meningococcal
serogroups (A, C, Y, W-135) is available. These four groups cause the
majority of meningococcal cases in the United States. This vaccine is
recommended by some groups for college students, particularly freshmen
living in dorms or residence halls. The vaccine is safe and effective
(85-90%). It can cause mild side effects, such as redness and pain at the
injection site lasting up to two days. Immunity develops within 7 to 10
days after the vaccine is given and lasts for up to 5 years.
What you should do if you think you or a friend might have
Seek prompt medical
For more information
school nurse, family doctor, and the staff at your local or regional
health department office are excellent sources for information on all
communicable diseases. You may also call your local health department or
Regional Texas Department of Health office to ask about meningococcal
vaccine. Additional information may also be found at the web sites for the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/ and the Texas
Department of Health: http://www.tdh.state.tx.us/.