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Understanding Meningitis

Understanding Meningitis

The bacterial or viral infection known as meningitis can kill within 24 hours, so recognizing the symptoms is critically important.

In recognition of the more than 2.8 people annually affected by meningitis globally each year, April 24 is World Meningitis Day.

The theme for World Meningitis Day 2021 is "Take Action, Defeat Meningitis." The campaign focuses on the strength of a united message, noting that "Our voices are stronger together."

When meningitis occurs, there is an inflammation or swelling of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.

Often, meningitis makes the news when there's an outbreak of the virus on college campuses. In the past few years, there have been outbreaks at Rutgers University and San Diego State University. Typically, when this occurs, it is recommended the at-risk populations receive vaccinations for serogroup B meningococcal disease.

A virus is not the only cause of meningitis. According to the CDC, injuries, cancer, certain drugs, and other types of infections can also cause meningitis. Treatment differs depending on the cause.

Meningitis caused by bacteria can be deadly, and if suspected, a person should seek immediate medical attention. Vaccines can protect against some types of bacterial meningitis.

Viral meningitis is serious but usually less so than bacterial. Those who contract viral meningitis but with typically healthy immune systems can usually get better on their own. But because of the potential seriousness, it is still important to see a medical professional.

Fungal meningitis is typically rare but can be caused by inhaling fungal spores. There is also parasitic meningitis, which is also less common.

With bacterial meningitis, symptoms include a sudden fever, headache, and stiff neck. Other symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and confusion. The symptoms can show up very quickly or appear over several days. Because symptoms can escalate to seizures and coma, seeking medical attention if you believe you have meningitis is important.

A physician will take blood samples to diagnose this type of meningitis or take a fluid sample near your spinal cord. Treatment comes in the form of antibiotics. This type of meningitis may be associated with the germs associated with sepsis, which can cause organ failure and death.

Viral meningitis, or the most common type, can be caused by the mumps or measles virus; Herpesviruses, including herpes simplex viruses; and varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox and shingles; the influenza virus or a virus such as West Nile.

A person of any age can suffer from this type of meningitis. However, children younger than 5 are at higher risk, as are people with weak immune systems.

Symptoms can include fever, irritability, sleepiness, lethargy, and poor appetite. There are no vaccines to protect against non-polio enteroviruses, which are the most common cause of viral meningitis. You can decrease your chances of contracting non-polio enteroviruses or spreading them to other people by washing your hands often, avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands, avoiding close contact with sick people, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, toys, and doorknobs if someone is sick.

For survivors of meningitis, the aftereffects can be severe and include acquired brain injury, hearing problems, learning difficulties, behavioral changes, depression, exhaustion, and memory problems.

For those who contract bacterial meningitis, about 1 in 5 develop one or more of the after-effects.

It’s important to note that different vaccines can protect against the most common types of bacterial and viral meningitis. From 2000 to 2015, health officials estimate that one of the vaccines prevented more than 1 million deaths. If you suspect you have come into contact with someone who has meningitis, ask your healthcare provider about vaccines.