Staphylococcal (staph) meningitis is a bacterial infection that affects the meninges. These are the protective covering around your spinal cord and brain. The condition is often fatal, but it’s rare.

Staph meningitis is defined as either hospital- or community-acquired. Both infections are dangerous. The only difference is where they were obtained.

When staph meningitis is caused by Staphylococcal aureus or Staphylococcal epidermidis bacteria, it’s usually from a surgical procedure.

Early symptoms of staph meningitis are vague. They may not be taken seriously because they resemble a cold or flu. The symptoms grow more serious as the infection worsens.

Diagnosis requires finding S. aureus, S. epidermidis, or another variety of staph bacteria in your body and spinal fluid. Your doctor will also do blood tests and take imaging scans of your brain to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment is difficult because staph bacteria can be resistant to many medications. Many people are given antibiotics upon arrival at the hospital, but the chosen antibiotics may not be preferred.

Even with correct antibiotics, the risk of death is very high. People with underlying chronic conditions have a higher risk of death.

Read on to learn the symptoms of staph meningitis and how to prevent it.

Because the symptoms of staph meningitis are common to many other diseases, it can be difficult to diagnose.

Common symptoms of staph meningitis include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • vomiting

Less common symptoms include:

  • shock
  • very low blood pressure
  • decreased consciousness

There are two ways a person can contract staph meningitis:

  • Hospital-acquired transmission means you got the infection while receiving treatment at a hospital or nursing home.
  • Community-acquired means you got the infection outside of a hospital or healthcare setting.

Both infections are treated similarly.

Once you acquire the infection, pathogens cross the blood-brain barrier to infect the meninges.

It’s very important to know the risk factors for staph meningitis. They include:

  • diabetes, as high blood sugar interferes with effective immune system functioning
  • history of hospital stays and surgical procedures
  • taking immunosuppressant drugs

To make a diagnosis of staph meningitis, your doctor first needs to do clinical tests to confirm which specific germ is causing the disease. This is so they can treat it properly.

The most common causes of meningitis are viruses and bacteria, such as:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • Neisseria meningitidis
  • Haemophilus influenzae
  • Listeria monocytogenes

In order to correctly identify the type of germ causing your meningitis, your doctor will usually perform the following tests:

  • Bacterial culture. Bacteria are swabbed from your nose/throat or obtained from blood or spinal fluid. The sample is left to grow on a culture plate in order to identify the type of bacteria present.
  • MRI scan. A head MRI allows your doctor to look for signs of inflammation in the brain.
  • Lumbar puncture. Also called a spinal tap, this test looks for signs of infection in your cerebrospinal fluid.
  • Complete blood count (CBC). A CBC looks for signs of infection in your blood.

Treatment with the correct antibiotics must be given quickly. Blood and spinal fluid cultures should let doctors know which medications to prescribe. Most are given intravenously (through an IV) to reach the infection as quickly as possible.

The ideal antibiotic will depend on the germ causing the infection. Your doctor will decide which to prescribe. Typical antibiotics used to treat staph meningitis include:

  • vancomycin
  • nafcillin
  • cefazolin
  • linezolid

If your condition worsens, your doctor may use mechanical ventilation by mask or ventilator tube to continue supplying your body with oxygen.

Dialysis may also be used because your kidneys may begin to shut down.

Staph meningitis has a very high death rate.

Even with proper antibiotics, the condition is affecting the most sensitive organ in the body, your brain. Survivors sometimes have a high chance of having permanent brain damage.

People with underlying conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, have a much higher risk of death.

However, remember that staph meningitis is rare. You can also prevent it from developing with proper preventive techniques.

To prevent staph meningitis, practice good hygiene habits. Wash your hands and cover your mouth when you cough to stop the spread of bacteria.

Maintain a healthy and strong immune system by eating a healthy diet, staying active, and making smart lifestyle choices. A strong immune system will help your body fight any potentially harmful bacteria.

Q:

How common is staphylococcal meningitis?

A:

Staphylococcal meningitis is uncommon in people with competent immune systems. Less than 6 percent of all meningitis patients in the United States have a staphylococcal infection. People who have HIV, use IV drugs, are undergoing hemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis, and those having neurosurgical procedures are more prone to this bacterial infection.

George Krucik, MD, MBAAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.