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Bacterial Meningitis: Causes and How It’s Spread

Overview

Highlights

  1. Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that surround your brain and spinal cord.
  2. Viral meningitis is the most common form, bacterial meningitis the most serious.
  3. Without treatment, bacterial meningitis can cause paralysis, stroke, and even death.

Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that outline your brain and spinal cord. These membranes are called meninges, giving the illness its name: “meningitis.” Meningitis can be bacterial or viral, though there are also fungal forms of the disease. Viral meningitis is the most common form. Bacterial meningitis is the most serious form. Without treatment, bacterial meningitis can cause paralysis, stroke, seizures, sepsis, and even death.

Read more: Meningitis »

What are the symptoms?

The hallmark symptoms of bacterial meningitis are:

  • high fever
  • stiff neck
  • severe headache

If you develop the disease, you may also experience:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • sensitivity to bright light
  • confusion
  • a rash of purple discoloration

Parents of babies and toddlers under the age of 2 should closely monitor any lingering irritability or lack of interest in eating, as these can also be symptoms of meningitis.

Symptoms can begin quickly, sometimes in just a couple hours, or they can progress over a day or two. Seek immediate medical attention if you show symptoms of bacterial meningitis. Your doctor will treat the condition as soon as possible, most likely with antibiotics.

How do you get 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 strep
  • 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.

Prevention

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 key to the prevention of meningitis. See your doctor to make sure your vaccinations, and those of your children, are up-to-date.

Why prevention matters

Bacterial meningitis can lead to severe health complications, such as stroke and brain damage. It can even be fatal. Complications of the disease are often permanent. Other serious possible complications include:

  • memory problems
  • hearing loss
  • paralysis
  • kidney failure
  • body-wide infection and shock, called septicemia
  • movement problems, such as difficulty walking
  • learning disabilities
  • headaches
  • seizures

Outlook

If you are experiencing symptoms of bacterial meningitis, seek medical care immediately. The disease can usually be treated with antibiotics. If meningitis is caught early enough a patient can make a full recovery with few or no lingering effects. But the best way to combat meningitis is to prevent it through vaccination and sound health practices. Understanding the causes of meningitis and how it spreads will help you stay healthy and keep you from experiencing this dangerous disease.

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