Meningitis is an infection of the membranes (meninges) that protect the spinal cord and brain. When the membranes become infected, they swell and press on the spinal cord or brain. This can cause life-threatening problems. Meningitis symptoms strike suddenly and worsen quickly.
Bacteria or a virus can cause meningitis. Viral meningitis is more common, but bacterial meningitis is more serious. It can lead to brain damage, paralysis, or stroke. In some cases, it can be fatal.
Many different types of bacteria can cause meningitis. Vaccines are available that target many of these bacteria. For this reason, it's important to know what's causing meningitis. Even though all types affect the same area of the body, they can have different outcomes and need different treatments.
Experts don't always know why meningitis happens. Some people get it when their immune system is weak or they've recently been sick. A head injury may also increase risk.
Bacterial meningitis is more common in infants under 1 year of age and people ages 16 to 21. College students living in dorms or other close quarters are at increased risk. Also at risk are adults with certain medical problems, including those without a spleen.
The most common symptoms of bacterial meningitis are:
These are symptoms to look for in children:
Symptoms typically come on quickly, in as little as a couple of hours or up to a day or two. If you think you or your child may have meningitis, go to an emergency room right away.
To diagnose this condition, a healthcare provider will do a spinal tap (also called a lumbar puncture) to take a sample of fluid from around the spinal cord. The fluid is then tested for bacteria. The healthcare provider will also ask about your symptoms and do a physical exam.
Other tests may include:
Prompt treatment of bacterial meningitis is crucial. It can save your life. Once the type of bacteria has been identified, you'll start taking antibiotics.
Antibiotics are given through a needle placed into a vein (usually in the arm or hand). They may also be given along with a corticosteroid to help reduce inflammation and swelling. Treatment also includes plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.
With quick treatment, many people with bacterial meningitis don’t have any permanent problems. However, even with prompt treatment, some may battle seizures, brain damage, hearing loss, and disability for the rest of their lives. Meningitis can be fatal and some people with this infection will die.
Vaccines are available to help prevent bacterial meningitis. Children now routinely get a meningitis vaccine around ages 11 to 12. A booster shot is given at age 16. Ask your healthcare provider if you or your children should be vaccinated.
Bacterial meningitis is contagious. If you’ve been around someone who has it, call your healthcare provider to talk about how to keep from getting sick.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
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