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- Infection: Meningitis is an infection of the fluid in the spinal cord and surrounding the brain. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment, while bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result in death, brain damage, or hearing loss. For bacterial meningitis, it is also important to know which type of bacteria is causing the meningitis because antibiotics can prevent some types from spreading and infecting other people. Before the 1990s, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis, but new vaccines being given to all children as part of their routine immunizations have reduced the occurrence of invasive disease due to H. influenzae. Today, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria meningitidis are the leading causes of bacterial meningitis.
- Diagnosis: High fever, headache, and stiff neck are common symptoms of meningitis in anyone over the age of 2. Symptoms can develop over several hours, or they may take one to two days. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, discomfort looking into bright lights, confusion, and sleepiness. The diagnosis is usually made by growing bacteria from a sample of spinal fluid. Identification of the type of bacteria responsible
is important for selection of correct antibiotics. Bacterial meningitis can be treated with a number of effective antibiotics. It is important, however, to start treatment early in the course of the disease. Appropriate antibiotic treatment of most common types of bacterial meningitis should reduce the risk of dying from meningitis to below 15%. The risk is higher among the elderly.
- Transmission: Meningococcal organisms are relatively common and can be asymptomatically carried in the nose or throat. However, for reasons that are not always clear, sometimes the bacteria can cause infection. Though not as contagious as the common cold or flu, meningitis can be spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (i.e., coughing, kissing). The bacteria that cause meningitis may spread to other people who have had close or prolonged contact within someone infected. People in the same household or day-care center, or anyone with direct contact with a patient’s oral secretions would be considered at increased risk of acquiring the infection. Close contacts of a person with meningitis caused by N. meningitidis should receive antibiotic prophylaxis.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Michigan Department of Community Health, Lansing.