Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that surround the brains and spinal cord. It may be caused by an infection with a bacterium or a virus. The viral form of meningitis is usually benign, but bacterial meningitis may have a severe course, sometimes even fatal.
Examples of viruses that can cause meningitis, are the echovirus, mumps and herpes simplex. Bacteria that cause meningitis include meningococci, pneumococci and Haemophilus influenzae type B.
A weakened immune system makes a person more susceptible to infections, as well as poor sanitary conditions. Head wounds and infections to the eyes, ears and nose can also cause meningitis. Additionally, meningitis can occur as a complication in diseases, such as pneumonia and syphilis.
The viral variant of meningitis is the most common form and is contagious. After infection with the virus, it will take up to three weeks before the first symptoms occur. The disease usually passes on its own within four to ten days.
The bacterial variant of meningitis is less contagious. Some people are more susceptible than others. After infection with the bacterium, it takes two to ten days before a person gets ill.
It can be difficult to distinguish between viral or bacterial meningitis, because the symptoms are almost the same. It’s advisable to consult a doctor in time, who will examine what form it is. The main signs and symptoms of meningitis are headache (especially while bending), stiff neck and fever. In addition, the following symptoms occur:
- Hypersensitivity to light.
- Muscle weakness (in severe cases).
- Reduced speech.
- Double vision.
- Epileptic seizures.
Red spots on the torso (which cannot be pushed away), sleepiness (which may be followed by coma) and convulsions, in combination with the symptoms mentioned above, indicate bacterial meningitis. This can have a serious course, sometimes even fatal. Early detection and treatment of acute meningitis are therefore of vital importance.
The diagnosis of meningitis can only be made with certainty after examining the fluid that is located between the membranes. This cerebrospinal fluid is in connection with the spinal fluid. When the cerebrospinal fluid is infected, this can also be seen in the spinal fluid. The doctor shall examine this with the so-called spinal tap (lumbar puncture). A needle is inserted between two vertebrae into the spinal canal. Then he takes some fluid and sends it to the laboratory for analysis. This examination should clarify whether there is meningitis and if so, which bacterium it is (in case of bacterial meningitis).
Viral meningitis usually passes without treatment. There are no serious residual effects, but the patient may suffer from headaches for several months.
Bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics. After healing, residual effects may persist, such as deafness, blindness, learning disabilities and epileptic seizures.
Currently, children in many countries are vaccinated against bacterial meningitis. The vaccine has reduced the bacterial variant of the disease by ninety percent.
Viral meningitis usually heals spontaneously and is rarely fatal. If bacterial meningitis is not treated in time, it can lead to death. The prognosis of treated bacterial meningitis will depend on the age of the person and the pathogen. In newborns, the disease is fatal in about twenty-five percent of the cases. In older children, this is about two percent and in adults twenty to thirty-five percent. In approximately one in six of the surviving children, brain damage remains that leads to hearing loss, decreased intelligence, behavioral problems and learning disabilities. In adults, this is less often the case.
- Cough and sneeze in the elbow cavity or into a handkerchief.
- Ventilate or air out regularly.
- People who travel to countries with a high risk, can get a vaccine for meningococci type C.
- Sometimes, family members of a person with meningitis receive antibiotics in order to prevent more people from getting ill.
- The term ‘meningitis’ is derived from the Latin word meninges (cerebral membranes). The suffix -itis indicates that it is an inflammation.
- The prevalence of bacterial meningitis is 4% and viral meningitis 0.01%.
- The condition is most common in people aged 15 to 24 years, who haven’t been vaccinated.