Meningitis is a condition characterized by the swelling of the meninges that are membranes enclosing the spinal cord and brain. The condition is generally caused due to migration of an infection. The accompanying swelling usually leads to development of characteristic symptoms such as fever, headache, stiffness of neck, and meningitis rash in people over two years old.
A majority of meningitis cases are caused due to infections by viruses. However, fungal and bacterial infections can also cause the disease. Subject to the cause of infection, meningitis may disappear on its own after about two weeks, or it may result in fatal consequences.
It is important to seek emergency medical care whenever an individual experiences the signs and symptoms of meningitis. Prompt treatment can prevent development of severe complications.
Symptoms of Meningitis
The initial signs and symptoms of meningitis can be easily mistaken for flu. The symptoms may appear over many hours, or over a couple of days and typically affect people over 2 years old. They are as follows:
- Distinct and severe headache that cannot be confused with other kinds of headaches
- High fever
- Stiffness of the neck
- Concentration difficulties or disorientation. Young patients may elicit this symptom as incapability to maintain eye contact
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Problems in waking up, or sleepiness
- Meningococcal or viral meningitis may also be accompanied by a skin rash
- Decreased interest in eating or drinking
Symptoms in Newborns
Infants and newborns may not experience the hallmark symptoms of meningitis like a stiff neck and headache. They may elicit the below listed symptoms:
- Persistent crying
- High fever
- Elevated irritability or sleepiness
- Poor feeding
- Lethargy or inactivity
- The fontanel or the top part of the baby’s head may have a bulge
- The baby’s body or neck may become stiff
It is also very difficult to comfort the affected infants. They may cry even more vociferously when picked up.
Causes of Meningitis
Meningitis is generally caused due to viral infections. Bacterial causes are very dangerous and hence require immediate medical diagnosis and treatment. Occasionally, a fungal infection may also cause the disease.
1. Viral meningitis
Most cases of meningitis are caused due to viral infections. It is mild and often disappears within a couple of weeks on its own. About thirty percent of viral meningitis cases in America are caused due infection by enteroviruses, while the causal virus of most remain unidentified.
Enteroviral infections commonly lead to development of symptoms such as sore throat, a meningitis rash, joint aches, diarrhea, and headaches. The viruses are prevalent during early fall and late summer. Viral meningitis can also be caused due to infection by La Crosse virus, herpes simplex virus, West Nile virus, and others.
2. Bacterial meningitis
The migration of bacteria to the spinal cord and brain, from other parts of the body can cause acute bacterial meningitis. It can also be caused due to direct bacterial invasion of the meninges due to a skull fracture, or a sinus or ear infection.
Acute bacterial meningitis can be caused due to different types of bacterial strains such as:
- The primary cause of bacterial meningitis in America amongst young children, infants, and adults is the Streptococcus pneumonia bacterium. It usually causes sinus or ear infections, or pneumonia.
- Haemophilus influenza type b or Hib bacterium was the main cause of bacterial meningitis in children before the 1990s. However, the development of new Hib vaccines have greatly reduced its occurrences. It is identified by infection of the upper respiratory system, sinusitis or ear infection.
- Neisseria meningitides causes meningococcal meningitis which features a characteristic rash. It is caused due to migration of an upper respiratory infection into the blood. It is an extremely contagious condition and primarily affects young adults and teenagers.
- Listeria monocytogenes bacteria can occur in contaminated foods, soil, and dust. Several domestic and wild animals are also carriers of the bacteria. Healthy people generally don’t get ill after contact with the bacteria. However, it poses great risk to newborns, individuals with compromised immune systems, pregnant women, and the elderly. Fetal infections can result in a stillborn baby, or the child may die soon after birth.
3. Fungal meningitis
It is comparatively less common. It causes chronic meningitis and can sometimes mimic bacterial meningitis. A common fungal type is cryptococcal meningitis which usually affects people with weakened immune systems. It can become fatal if left untreated.
4. Chronic meningitis
This rare form of meningitis occurs due to invasion of the brain-surrounding fluid and membranes by slow-developing organisms. It gradually develops over a couple of weeks or more. Symptoms include confusion or disorientation, headaches, vomiting, and fever.
5. Other causes
Meningitis may also be caused due to inflammatory conditions like lupus, certain kinds of cancer, drug allergies, and other non-infectious causes.
Treatment of Meningitis
Treatment is dependent on the type of meningitis affecting the patient.
- Bacterial meningitis: It is treated via intravenous use of antibiotics or a combination of different antibiotics. Infected sinuses or mastoids may need to be drained. Surgical removal of infected brain fluid may be carried out when necessary. Accompanying symptoms like seizures, shock, or dehydration may need additional treatment.It is also possible to prevent certain kinds of bacterial meningitis via vaccinations.
- Viral meningitis: It generally tends to fade away on its own within a couple of weeks without any treatment. The doctor may suggest bed rest, intake of lots of fluids, and certain non-prescription drugs to alleviate the accompanying fever and pain. Viral meningitis caused due to herpes virus infection may be treated with anti-viral drugs.
- Other types of meningitis: In case the doctor is unable to immediately diagnose the cause of meningitis, then he/she may commence with antibiotic and antiviral treatment till the underlying cause is identified. Anti-fungal meningitis medications can cause harmful side effects, and hence its administration is postponed till the cause is determined. Meningitis caused due to autoimmune diseases or an allergic reaction may be treated with the use of cortisone-like medicines. Cancer-associated meningitis are treated as per individual types of cancers.