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Definition

What is bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that surround your brain and spinal cord. Bacterial meningitis is very serious and can be deadly. Death can occur in as little as a few hours. While most people with meningitis recover, permanent disabilities such as brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disabilities can result from the infection. There are several types of bacteria that can cause meningitis. Some of the leading causes of bacterial meningitis include Streptococcus pneumoniae, group B Streptococcus, Neisseria meningitidis, Haemophilus influenzae, and Listeria monocytogenes.

These bacteria can also be associated with another serious illness, sepsis. Sepsis is the body’s overwhelming and life-threatening response to infection that can cause tissue damage, organ failure, and death.

How common is bacterial meningitis?

About 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis (caused by S. pneumoniae, group B Streptococcus, N. meningitidis, H. influenzae, and L. monocyteogenes), including 500 deaths, occurred each year between 2003–2007.

However, it can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis signs and symptoms include sudden onset of fever, headache, and stiff neck. There are often additional symptoms, such as

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Photophobia (increased sensitivity to light)
  • Altered mental status (confusion)

The symptoms of bacterial meningitis can appear quickly or over several days. Typically they develop within 3 to 7 days after exposure.

In newborns and babies, the classic meningitis symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to notice. The baby may appear to be slow or inactive, irritable, vomiting or feeding poorly. In young babies, doctors may also look for a bulging fontanelle (soft spot on infant’s head) or abnormal reflexes, which can also be signs of meningitis. If you think your baby or child has any of these symptoms, call the doctor right away.

Later symptoms of bacterial meningitis can be very serious (e.g., seizures, coma). For this reason, anyone who thinks they may have meningitis should see a doctor as soon as possible.

When should I see my doctor?

Early diagnosis and treatment can stop bacterial meningitis from worsening and prevent another medical emergency, so talk to your doctor as soon as possible to prevent this serious condition.

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consulting with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis is caused by several different types of bacteria, including:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae, also called pneumococcus
  • Neisseria meningitidis, also called meningococcus
  • Haemophilus influenzae, also called Hib
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Group B Streptococcus
  • E. coli

Bacteria that cause meningitis can live in your body and the environment around you. In many cases they are harmless. Bacterial meningitis occurs when these bacteria get in your bloodstream and travel to your brain and spinal cord to start an infection.

Most bacteria that cause this form of infection are spread through close personal contact, such as:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Kissing

An infected person’s throat secretions, like phlegm and saliva, contain bacteria. When that person coughs or sneezes the bacteria travel through the air. But most of the germs that can lead to bacterial meningitis aren’t contagious. In fact, the bacteria that cause meningitis are less contagious than viruses that cause the cold or flu.

Not all bacteria that cause meningitis are spread from one person to another. You can also develop bacterial meningitis after eating certain foods containing the Listeria bacterium, such as:

  • Soft cheeses
  • Hot dogs
  • Sandwich meats

Problems due to Listeria are more common in:

  • Pregnant women
  • The elderly
  • Babies

Meningitis-causing bacteria are more likely to attack the membranes of your brain after a trauma such as:

  • A head fracture
  • Surgery
  • A sinus infection

These conditions lower your immunity and disrupt your body’s natural barriers, leaving your body open to infection of any kind, including bacterial meningitis. Additionally, babies and people with weak immune systems are more likely to develop bacterial meningitis. It’s important to note that the cause of an infection can be hard to pinpoint.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for bacterial meningitis?

Certain people are at increased risk for bacterial meningitis. Some risk factors include:

  • Age: Babies are at increased risk for bacterial meningitis compared to people in other age groups. However, people of any age can develop bacterial meningitis. See the table above for which bacteria more commonly affect which age groups.
  • Community setting: Infectious diseases tend to spread where large groups of people gather together. Outbreaks of meningococcal disease, caused by N. meningitidis, have been reported from college campuses.
  • Certain medical conditions: There are certain medical conditions, medications, and surgical procedures that put people at increased risk for meningitis.
  • Working with meningitis-causing pathogens: Microbiologists routinely exposed to meningitis-causing bacteria are at increased risk for meningitis.
  • Travel: Travelers to the meningitis belt in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly during the dry season, or to Mecca during the annual Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage may be at increased risk for meningococcal meningitis.

Diagnosis & Treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

 

How is bacterial meningitis diagnosed?

If meningitis is suspected, samples of blood or cerebrospinal fluid (fluid near the spinal cord) are collected and sent to the laboratory for testing. It is important to know the specific cause of meningitis because that helps doctors understand how to treat the disease, and possibly how bad it will get. In the case of bacterial meningitis, antibiotics can help prevent serious illness and reduce the chances a close contact will also develop the disease (depending on which bacteria are causing the infection).

If bacteria are present, they can often be grown (cultured). Growing the bacteria in the laboratory is important for confirming the presence of bacteria, identifying the specific type of bacteria that is causing the infection, and deciding which antibiotic will work best. Other tests can sometimes find and identify the bacteria if the cultures do not.

How is bacterial meningitis treated?

Bacterial meningitis can be treated with a number of antibiotics. It is important that treatment be started as soon as possible.

Lifestyle changes & Home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage bacterial meningitis?

Some types of bacterial meningitis can be prevented through immunizations. There are vaccines that protect against pneumococcus, meningococcus, and Hib, all of which cause meningitis. Vaccinations are keys to the prevention of meningitis. See your doctor to make sure your vaccinations, and those of your children, are up-to-date.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Review Date: March 8, 2017 | Last Modified: March 8, 2017

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