Definition of Disease...
WHAT IS MENINGITIS?
Meningitis is an infection of the fluid of a person's spinal
cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain. People sometimes
refer to it as spinal meningitis. Meningitis is usually caused
by a viral or bacterial infection. Knowing whether meningitis
is caused by a virus or bacterium is important because the
severity of illness and the treatment differ. Viral meningitis
is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment,
while bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result
in brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disability.
For bacterial meningitis, it is also important to know which
type of bacteria is causing the meningitis because antibiotics
can prevent some types from spreading and infecting other
people. Before the 1990s, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis, but new vaccines
being given to all children as part of their routine immunizations
have reduced the occurrence of invasive disease due to H.
influenzae. Today, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria
meningitidis are the leading causes of bacterial meningitis.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS & SYMPTOMS OF MENINGITIS?
High fever, headache, and stiff neck are common symptoms of
meningitis in anyone over the age of 2 years. These symptoms
can develop over several hours, or they may take 1 to 2 days.
Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, discomfort looking
into bright lights, confusion, and sleepiness. In newborns
and small infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache,
and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to detect, and
the infant may only appear slow or inactive, or be irritable,
have vomiting, or be feeding poorly. As the disease progresses,
patients of any age may have seizures.
HOW IS MENINGITIS DIAGNOSED?
Early diagnosis and treatment are very important. If symptoms
occur, the patient should see a doctor immediately. The diagnosis
is usually made by growing bacteria from a sample of spinal
fluid. The spinal fluid is obtained by performing a spinal
tap, in which a needle is inserted into an area in the lower
back where fluid in the spinal canal is readily accessible.
Identification of the type of bacteria responsible is important
for selection of correct antibiotics.
CAN MENINGITIS BE TREATED?
Bacterial meningitis can be treated with a number of effective
antibiotics. It is important, however, that treatment be started
early in the course of the disease. Appropriate antibiotic
treatment of most common types of bacterial meningitis should
reduce the risk of dying from meningitis to below 15%, although
the risk is higher among the elderly.
IS MENINGITIS CONTAGIOUS?
Yes, some forms are bacterial meningitis are contagious. The
bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and
throat secretions (i.e., coughing, kissing). Fortunately,
none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious
as things like the common cold or the flu, and they are not
spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where
a person with meningitis has been.
However, sometimes the bacteria that cause meningitis have
spread to other people who have had close or prolonged contact
with a patient with meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitidis
(also called meningococcal meningitis) or Hib. People in the
same household or day-care center, or anyone with direct contact
with a patient's oral secretions (such as a boyfriend or girlfriend)
would be considered at increased risk of acquiring the infection.
People who qualify as close contacts of a person with meningitis
caused by N. meningitidis should receive antibiotics to prevent
them from getting the disease. Antibiotics for contacts of
a person with Hib meningitis disease are no longer recommended
if all contacts 4 years of age or younger are fully vaccinated
against Hib disease (see below).
All content courtesy of the Center
For Disease Control (c) 1998
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