Meningitis is an infection of the fluid of the spinal cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain. The brain and spinal cord are encased in a layer of tissue. These layers, called meninges, can become infected and cause meningitis. Meningitis is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Knowing whether a virus causes meningitis or bacterium is important because the severity of illness and treatment differ. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment, while bacterial meningitis can be quite severe, fast-moving and has the most potential for being fatal. For many survivors of bacterial meningitis, the long-term effects can be debilitating and may result in brain damage, hearing loss or learning disability.
What are the symptoms?
Early diagnosis and treatment are critical and it is important to seek immediate medical attention if you suspect you have meningitis. In general, the more symptoms, the greater the risk.
- Severe headache
- Very stiff neck
- Sensitivity to bright lights (Photophobia)
- Skin rash or purple patches
- Confusion and sleepiness
Symptoms can appear quickly, or over a period of days. Typically symptoms appear within 3-7 days after exposure.
Is bacterial meningitis contagious and is there a vaccine?
Some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious. The bacteria can mainly be spread from person to person through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions during close or lengthy contact. This can occur through coughing, kissing, and sneezing, especially if living in the same dorm or household. Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as things like the common cold or the flu. The bacteria are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been. Between 10-25% of people carry the bacteria responsible for bacterial meningitis in the back of their nose and throat, yet infection is relatively rare. A person who has recovered from bacterial meningitis was given strong medication while in the hospital. Therefore, he/she will not carry the bacteria that cause the disease.
Two vaccines are available for meningococcal meningitis: a conjugate vaccine (ACYW) and a Serogroup B vaccine. These are the strains contracted most often by college students. The vaccines are safe, effective and highly recommended. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends routine vaccination of all persons 11-18 years of age with 1 dose of meningococcal conjugate vaccine. For adults, they recommend either meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine or meningococcal conjugate vaccine if you:
- Are a college freshman living in a dormitory
- Are a military recruit
- Have a damaged spleen or your spleen has been removed
- Have terminal complement deficiency
- Are a microbiologist who is routinely exposed to Neisseria meningitidis (the causal pathogen)
- Are traveling to or residing in countries in which the disease is common
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention give specific recommendations about meningococcal vaccines on their website.
Who is at risk?
Anyone can contract bacterial meningitis, but as a result of the protection offered by current childhood vaccines, bacterial meningitis is most commonly diagnosed among pre-teens and young adults. According to the CDC, college freshman, especially those who live in dormitories, are at a slightly increased risk for bacterial meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitidis compared with other persons of the same age. Most cases, however, are isolated and not related to another case or "outbreak." Getting the vaccine recommended by the CDC is strongly recommended for those who are at an increased risk.
Early diagnosis and treatment of bacterial meningitis is essential to prevent permanent neurological damage. Antibiotic and supportive care are essential to stop the diseases. Bacterial meningitis can be dangerous for two reasons. First, it is relatively rare; therefore, we may not consider the possibility of contracting meningitis and may ignore early symptoms and signs. As well, very early stages of the infection may appear to be symptoms similar to someone suffering from the cold or the flu.