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Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the covering over the brain and spinal cord. It is generally not contagious unless it is a bacterial infection and people live in close quarters with the infected person. Viral meningitis is less severe than bacterial meningitis and most people have a complete recovery with only supportive measures. Fungal meningitis is extremely uncommon and is especially uncommon in people who have a weakened immune system.
The causes of meningitis are when a bacterium or virus comes from elsewhere in the body and spreads up to the meninges. The common places that bacteria or viruses come from are the sinuses, the ears and the upper respiratory tract. In less common circumstances, the meningitis is caused by fungal infections, medications and autoimmune disorders.
Bacterial meningitis is a very serious illness of the brain that needs immediate care by the healthcare team. The doctor must keep a high index of suspicion for meningitis or the care may be delayed and the patient will die. Death can happen within hours if not treated with antibiotics promptly. Permanent damage can occur if it if not treated promptly.
There are several major causes of bacterial meningitis. These include Neisseria meningitidis, which causes meningococcal meningitis in kids and in young adults. Another cause of bacterial meningitis includes Streptococcus pneumoniae, which affects kids and adults. Haemophilus influenzae used to be a common cause of meningitis in kids and infants but the Hib vaccine came out which immunized babies against Haemophilus and the number of cases dropped dramatically. Now kids are being immunized against Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria meningitidis so that the cases of these types of meningitis are beginning to drop as well.
Bacteria are spread via coughing and sneezing so if you are around a person who has developed bacterial meningitis, immunizations and special hygiene precautions need to be taken. The person with meningitis needs to cough or sneeze into their sleeve and the clothing needs to be washed daily. Bacterial meningitis usually develops when the bacteria get into the bloodstream through the ears, sinuses and nose. The bacteria travel to the bloodstream then to reach the brain.
Viral meningitis is the most common form of meningitis and fortunately is usually less serious than bacterial meningitis. In can, however, be more serious than bacterial meningitis. There are several types of viruses that cause meningitis—usually those that also cause diarrhea. Those who suffer from viral meningitis rarely have permanent brain damage when the infection gets better. The vast majority of patients recover without sequelae.
Fungal meningitis is not very common and is very rare in healthy individuals. Those who have an impaired immune system tend to get the disease more often. For example, people with AIDS are at a higher risk of getting fungal meningitis.
Those at greatest risk of meningitis are children under the age of five, teens and young adults between the ages of 16 and 25, and adults over the age of 55. People are at greatest risk if they have certain medical problems such as a missing spleen, chronic illness, or disorders of the immune system. Some of the bacteria and viruses that result in meningitis can be contagious so you often see them in outbreaks that occur in close quarters, such as dormitories or other college housing locations. People are also at risk if they travel to certain areas of Africa where the organism is endemic.
Even though it is a relatively uncommon disease, a doctor treating patients should be aware of fever, possible rash, stiff neck, and headache, and should do a lumbar puncture to confirm the diagnosis rather quickly so that treatment can begin as quickly as possible. Failure to do this could lead to a case of medical negligence.
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