Pneumococcal Meningitis

Written by Gretchen Holm | Published on July 9, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Pneumococcal Meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection and inflammation of the meninges. Your meninges are the membranes that cover your spinal cord and your brain. Meningitis can be caused by many different germs, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses.

Most forms of meningitis are caused by viral infections. Pneumococcal meningitis, however, is a bacterial form of meningitis. It’s a serious disease that can cause death even with proper treatment. If you suspect you may have pneumococcal meningitis, see a doctor right away.

According to the Meningitis Research Foundation of Canada, up to 40 percent of the population may carry the type of bacteria that causes pneumococcal meningitis (MRFC). However, it is dormant in the vast majority of cases.

However, when it is not dormant, this infection is very dangerous. Even with speedy diagnosis and treatment, the death rate is around 20 percent, according to the Meningitis Foundation of America (MFA). In addition, 50 percent of those who contract the disease will suffer long-term health issues.

What Causes Pneumococcal Meningitis?

Pneumococcal meningitis is caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae. These bacteria do not always cause meningitis. In some cases, they may cause other illnesses such as:

  • bacteremia (a blood infection)
  • ear infections
  • pneumonia
  • sinus infections

How Is Pneumococcal Meningitis Transmitted?

Pneumococcal meningitis is transmitted from person to person. The bacteria are spread through the tiny droplets from an infected person’s mouth, throat, or nose. For example, if someone with the infection coughs or sneezes on or near you, you may contract the disease.

You can also contract the disease from an infected person by kissing or by sharing anything that comes into contact with the mouth such as:

  • a cup
  • a fork
  • a straw
  • lipstick
  • a cigarette

Up to 40 percent of the population may carry Streptococcus pneumoniae (MRFC). In most of these people, the bacteria are dormant. However, the bacteria can be transmitted even when it’s dormant.

Close living situations—such as dormitories—can increase your risk for infection.

Signs of Pneumococcal Meningitis

You will typically develop symptoms one to three days after you were exposed to the bacteria. In some cases, the symptoms may develop sooner or later than that.

Symptoms of pneumococcal meningitis usually come on rapidly. An infected person may develop the following common symptoms:

  • chest pain
  • chills
  • confusion
  • cough
  • headache
  • high fever
  • vomiting
  • weakness

Other possible symptoms of this form of meningitis include:

  • agitation
  • irritability
  • rapid breathing
  • stiff neck

In infants, the soft spot on the head (called the fontanelle) may bulge outward.

How Is Pneumococcal Meningitis Diagnosed?

Pneumococcal meningitis is generally diagnosed through a spinal tap. This involves your doctor collecting a sample of the fluid in your spine. By testing this fluid, your doctor or healthcare provider can figure out whether you have pneumococcal meningitis.

Your doctor might also perform a physical examination when trying to figure out if you have pneumococcal meningitis. Signs that point toward the condition include:

  • fast heart rate
  • fever
  • stiff neck
  • vomiting

Treatment Options for a Pneumococcal Meningitis Infection

If you have pneumococcal meningitis, you will immediately be admitted to the hospital. You will then be treated with antibiotics. Ceftriaxone is a very common choice as an antibiotic for this condition. However, it is not the only option. Other possible antibiotics for bacterial meningitis include:

  • ampicillin
  • benzylpenicillin
  • cefotaxime
  • chloramphenicol
  • penicillin

What Is the Long-Term Outlook for Pneumococcal Meningitis?

This is a serious form of meningitis. Even with proper diagnosis and treatment, the death rate is around 20 percent (MFA).

Twenty-two to 50 percent of those who survive the disease will have lasting problems as a result (MFA). These include:

  • brain damage
  • deafness
  • learning disabilities
  • paralysis

Because this disease is so dangerous, it’s very important to go to the doctor right away if you suspect you have it.

Vaccines to Prevent Pneumococcal Meningitis

There are two vaccines available to protect against different types of pneumococcal meningitis.

These vaccines are usually recommended for children under 2 years old, adults age 65 or over, and older children and adults at high risk for disease. People who smoke or have asthma may also be candidates for the vaccine.

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