What is Meningitis?
Meningitis, is the inflammation of the thin protective tissue (collectively called meninges) surrounding the spinal cord and brain. It may caused by infection due to bacteria, viruses, other microorganisms and has the potential to be life threatening.
Causes of Meningitis
Meningitis is most commonly caused due to viral infections that go away on their own, without requiring any treatment. Bacterial infections are, on the other hand, extremely dangerous and may result in brain damage or even death if left untreated.
Meningitis may also be caused by certain drug allergies, fungi, tumors, chemical irritation etc.
Different types of bacteria can cause meningitis; therefore, knowing the type of bacteria involved is crucial for appropriate treatment. Neiseria meningitidis causes meningococcal meningitis, which is extremely contagious and usually occurs as outbreaks. Haemophilus influenzae, is another meningitis causing bacteria. A vaccine called HiB against this bacterium has been developed and incorporated in vaccination programs across the world.
Streptococcus pneumonia is a bacterium, commonly responsible for this condition in children. It may develop along with pneumonia, sinus or ear infection. Listeria monocytogenes tends to affect the very young or very old, and sometimes pregnant women. Staphylococcus aureus may be observed in the body after brain surgery or a head injury. Viral meningitis is caused by several types of viruses, such as enteroviruses, mumps virus, arbovirus, herpes virus and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).
Diagnosis of Meningitis
A physical examination of the patient should check for fever, fast heart rate, stiff neck, mental stability. If meningitis is suspected, a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) is performed in which the cerebrospinal fluid is collected and sent for examination.
Chest X Ray, blood culture test, a CT scan of the head may also be taken.
Medications for Meningitis
There are various types of antibiotics which can be prescribed by the doctor to treat bacterial meningitis. Often, a combination of antibiotics proves effective in fighting this deadly disease. Ampicillin, gentamicin, cephalosporins, trimethoprim sulfamethoxazole and vancomycin are some of the medications the health care provider may prescribe.
Corticosteroids can also help reduce the inflammation. Diazepam is a phenytoin which may be given in case seizures occur. Family members exposed to the patient should be given Rifampin to lower the risk of them contracting the meningitis.
Prevention of Meningitis
The Haemophilus or HiB vaccine can largely help prevent the occurrence of one type of meningitis in children. Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine is effective against pneumococcal meningitis and is incorporated in the regular childhood immunization program. Those adults and communities who have not been vaccinated should do so to prevent the occurrence of meningitis, especially if they are traveling to countries where meningitis is very common and occurs frequently.
Those in close contact with persons suffering from meningococcal meningitis should be kept on preventive antibiotics. This will prove beneficial to those people who have not been vaccinated and are living in close quarters. Young children aged 2 and above who have immune system problems or who do not have their spleen.
Risk Factors of Meningitis
The following people are at a greater risk of contracting this disease:
- Children below 5 years of age and adults over 60 years.
- People with sickle cell anemia
- People with alcoholism
- People who have undergone organ transplants and are on immune system suppressing drugs.
- People suffering from cancer or receiving chemotherapy.
- IV drug users
- People who have been exposed to meningitis
- People with diabetes
- Those living in close quarters as in day care centers, military barracks or college dormitories.
Symptoms of Meningitis
Symptoms of meningitis may appear all of a sudden, and include
- High fever and chills
- Persistent and severe headache
- Stiff neck
- Vomiting or nausea
- Changes in behavior like drowsiness, confusion.
- Photophobia or fear of bright lights
- Bulging fontanels
- Rapid breathing
- In infants, meningitis symptoms may include tiredness or irritability, fever, poor feeding.
Treatment for Meningitis
The duration and treatment depends on the strain of bacterium involved. Treatment for meningitis may last for up to 3 weeks. Viral meningitis treatment aims at reducing aches and fever. In some cases, acyclovir, which is an anti viral medication, may be prescribed. In case bacterial meningitis is suspected, a course of antibiotics must be started immediately.