Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that surround your brain and spinal cord. These membranes are called meninges, giving the illness the name “meningitis.” Bacterial meningitis is just one type of meningitis. There are also viral and fungal forms of the disease. Viral meningitis is the most common form of meningitis, while bacterial is the most serious form. Without treatment, the bacterial infection could cause you to become paralyzed, have a stroke, or even die. According to the National Foundation for Infectious Disease (NFID), meningitis can cause severe, life-threatening damage in as little as two days.

One Disease, Many Causes

Bacterial meningitis can be 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

How Do You Get Bacterial Meningitis?

The bacteria that cause meningitis can live both in your body and the environment around you. In many cases, they don’t do any harm. But sometimes the bacteria travel through your bloodstream to your brain and spinal cord and start an infection. This is when bacterial meningitis occurs.

Most of the bacteria that cause this form of infection are spread through close personal contact, such as coughing, sneezing, and kissing. Throat secretions from an infected person (for example, phlegm or saliva) contain bacteria. When you cough or sneeze, the bacteria travel through the air. But most of the germs that can lead to bacterial meningitis are relatively noncontagious. In fact, the bacteria that cause meningitis are less contagious than the 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 soft cheeses, hot dogs, or sandwich meats that contain the Listeria bacterium. Problems due to Listeria are more common in pregnant women, the elderly, and young babies.

Meningitis-causing bacteria are more likely to attack the membranes of your brain after a trauma like a head fracture, surgery, or even a sinus infection. These conditions disrupt your body’s natural barriers, leaving your body more open to infection of any kind, as well as lowered immunity.

Additionally, babies and people with weak immune systems are more likely to develop bacterial meningitis. It’s important to note that sometimes there just isn’t a known cause for the infection.

Prevent the Spread

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.

You can also prevent bacterial meningitis by following these lifestyle tips:

  • Keep your immune system healthy.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Follow a healthy diet.
  • Avoid close contact with anyone that’s sick.

What Are the Symptoms?

The hallmark symptoms of bacterial meningitis are a high fever, stiff neck, and severe headache. If you develop the disease, you may also experience nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to bright lights, and confusion. Parents of babies and toddlers under the age of two should keep their eye on any lingering irritability or lack of interest in eating.

Symptoms can begin quickly. They can begin over the span of a couple hours, or they may progress in a day or two. If you show symptoms of bacterial meningitis, get immediate medial attention. Your doctor may want to treat the condition with antibiotics as soon as possible.

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 (septicemia)
  • movement problems (i.e. trouble walking)
  • learning disabilities

Fortunately, bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics. And early treatment can help you make a full recovery with little or no lingering effects. But the best treatment is prevention. Understanding what causes meningitis and how it spreads may keep you from experiencing this dangerous disease.