doctor explaining meningitis complications

Overview

Meningococcal meningitis occurs when the tissues around the brain and spinal cord become infected. These tissues are called the meninges. They surround and protect the central nervous system. One type of bacteria that infects meninges is called Neisseria meningitidis.

An infection of this tissue can cause a dangerous buildup of pressure on the brain. Symptoms of infection may include:

  • headache
  • stiff neck
  • confusion
  • sensitivity to light
  • high fever
  • lethargy
  • skin rash
  • convulsions

Outbreaks, diagnosis, and treatment

Outbreaks of bacterial meningitis are rare in the United States because of the widespread use of modern vaccines. They can prevent illness caused by most strains.

Doctors can also prescribe antibiotics to treat people who are infected. But not everyone who becomes infected and receives antibiotics will fully recover.

The bacteria are capable of causing serious damage very quickly. If left untreated, the infection can cause brain damage or even death. Antibiotics can usually eliminate the bacteria. Still, about 10 to 15 percent of cases result in death even when antibiotics are used. Among people who recover, 11 to 19 percent will experience long-term complications. Those numbers may be higher among younger people.

Complications

The severity of complications generally increases with the severity of the original infection. A study of teens that survived meningitis infection found that more than half had physical aftereffects.

Symptoms may include:

  • partial or total hearing loss
    • memory and concentration problems
    • balance and coordination problems
    • temporary or permanent learning difficulties
    • partial or total vision loss
    • sleep disorders, such as insomnia
    • speech problems
    • epilepsy
    • gangrene
    • amputation of fingers, toes, or limbs

Bacteremia and septicemia

Meningococcal meningitis is the most common form of N meningitidis infection. Inflammation and swelling of the meninges causes most of the problems, but the bacteria can also enter the bloodstream. This type of infection is called bacteremia or septicemia.

Meningococcal septicemia is a dangerous form of bloodstream infection. The bacteria multiply in the bloodstream and release toxins that can seriously damage blood vessel linings. Bleeding into the skin or organs may occur. A characteristic dark purple rash may develop in the later stages.

Other symptoms may include:

  • fatigue
  • vomiting
  • cold hands and feet
  • chills
  • diarrhea
  • rapid breathing
  • severe aches or pains in the muscles, joints, chest, or belly.

This form of infection also requires very rapid treatment or it could cause death within a few hours. Survivors may experience gangrene, requiring amputation of fingers, toes, or limbs. Skin grafts may be required to repair damaged skin.

Arthritis

Several studies have been done to look at long-term complications, including arthritis. Arthritis is a condition affecting the joints. It involves painful swelling and stiffness.

Some patients who recover from meningococcal meningitis develop arthritis that appears to be related to the infection. One study found that 12 percent of people who had meningococcal meningitis developed arthritis.

Migraine headache

Some research shows that the long-term risk of migraine headache is greater among people who have had meningococcal meningitis. But a report in the European Journal of Neurology concluded that people who have had meningitis aren’t more likely to suffer from chronic headaches than other people who haven’t had the infection.