Meningitis is a disease caused by the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord known as the meninges. The inflammation is usually caused by an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is also referred to as spinal meningitis.
Meningitis may develop in response to a number of causes, usually bacteria or viruses, but meningitis can also be caused by physical injury, cancer or certain drugs.
The severity of illness and the treatment for meningitis differ depending on the cause. Thus, it is important to know the specific cause of meningitis. For example, bacterial meningitis is usually more severe than viral, fungal, or parasitic meningitis. Although it can be very serious, bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics that can prevent severe illness and reduce the spread of infection from person to person.
Signs and Symptoms:
Meningitis infection is characterized by a sudden onset of fever, headache, and stiff neck. It is often accompanied by other symptoms, such as
- Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
- Altered mental status
This is the more dangerous and deadly of illnesses caused by Neisseria meningitidis. When Neisseria meningitidis bacteria enter the bloodstream and multiply, they damage the walls of the blood vessels and cause bleeding into the skin and organs.
Symptoms may include fever, fatigue, vomiting, cold hands and feet, cold chills, severe aches or pain in the muscles, joints, chest or abdomen, rapid breathing, diarrhea — and, in the later stages, a puerperal rash or a petechial rash.
Meningococcemia is very serious and can be fatal. In fatal cases, deaths can occur in as little as a few hours. In non-fatal cases, permanent disabilities can include amputations or severe scarring as a result of skin grafts.
The symptoms of bacterial meningitis can appear quickly or over several days. Typically they develop within 3-7 days after exposure.
Infants younger than one month old are at a higher risk for severe infection. In newborns and infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to notice. The infant may appear to be slow or inactive, irritable, vomiting or feeding poorly. In young children, doctors may also look at the child’s reflexes, which can also be a sign of meningitis.
Although the early symptoms of viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis may be similar, later symptoms of bacterial meningitis can be very severe (e.g., seizures, coma). For this reason, if you think you or someone else may have meningitis, see a physician as soon as possible.
Viral meningitis is an infection of the meninges (the covering of the brain and spinal cord) that is caused by a virus. Enteroviruses, the most common cause of viral meningitis, appear most often during the summer and fall in temperate climates.
Viral meningitis can affect babies, children, and adults. It is usually less severe than bacterial meningitis and normally clears up without specific treatment. The symptoms of viral meningitis are similar to those for bacterial meningitis, which can be fatal. Because of this, it is important to see a healthcare provider right away if you think you or your child might have meningitis.
Symptoms of viral meningitis in adults may differ from those in children:
The symptoms of viral meningitis usually last from 7 to 10 days, and people with normal immune systems usually recover completely.
Symptoms of fungal meningitis are similar to symptoms of other forms of meningitis; however, they often appear more gradually. In addition to typical meningitis symptoms, like headache, fever, nausea, and stiffness of the neck, people with fungal meningitis may also experience:
- Dislike of bright lights
- Changes in mental status, confusion
- Personality changes
What about the Meningitis Vaccination?
Although the University of Maine does not require the meningitis vaccination upon admission, it is highly recommended to the incoming students. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends routine vaccination of all persons 11-18 years of age with 1 dose of meningococcal conjugate vaccine at the earliest opportunity. College freshmen living in dormitories are at increased risk for meningococcal disease and should be vaccinated with meningococcal conjugate vaccine before college entry if they have not previously been vaccinated. The risk for meningococcal disease among college students who are not freshman is similar to that for the general population of similar age (age 18-24 years).
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