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What is meningitis?

What is meningitis?

Stefano Mirabello NowPatientGreen tick
Medically reviewed by Stefano Mirabello, BPharm and written by Rajive Patel, BPharm - Updated on 2 Sep 2023
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Table of contents
OverviewWhat is Meningitis?What causes Meningitis?Common causes of bacterial meningitis include:What is the first sign of Meningitis?What does a Meningitis rash look like?How is Meningitis spread?Diagnosis of MeningitisHow is it treated?Complications of MeningitisMeningitis vaccinationMenACWYHibMenBSources

Are you concerned about the possibility of meningitis and would like to know more information? Meningitis is a serious illness that can cause life-threatening complications. Fortunately, with proper diagnosis and treatment, most cases of meningitis are easily managed. In this blog post, we will be discussing what meningitis is, the symptoms it causes, as well as how it is commonly treated. We hope you find this information useful so that your awareness level around this topic is heightened and you feel more informed when making decisions regarding your health.

What is Meningitis?

Meningitis is an infectious disease that affects the meninges of the brain and spinal cord. These are the layers of protective membranes that protect them.

Most people are familiar with the brain and spinal cord, but don’t know much about the meninges. The meninges are three layers of tissue that protect the brain and spinal cord. The outermost layer is called the dura mater. The middle layer is called the arachnoid mater. The innermost layer is called the pia mater. These layers are separated by cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The CSF cushions and protects the brain and spinal cord.

What causes Meningitis?

Bacterial infections and viral infections are the most common causes of meningitis. It is rare for meningitis to be caused by fungal or parasitic infections.

Bacterial

Bacterial meningitis is the most serious form of meningitis and can be life-threatening. It’s caused by bacteria that enter the body through the nose or mouth and travel to the brain and spinal cord, where they multiply and cause inflammation.

Common causes of bacterial meningitis include:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcal)
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
  • Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcal)

Viral

Viral meningitis is much less serious and often resolves on its own without treatment. It’s caused by a virus that enters the body through the nose or mouth and travels to the brain and spinal cord, where it multiplies and causes inflammation.

Common causes of viral meningitis include:

  • Enteroviruses
  • Mumps virus,
  • Herpes simplex virus type 1 and 2
  • Varicella-zoster virus (the cause of chickenpox)

Fungal

Fungal meningitis is much less common than bacterial or viral forms and is very rare in the UK. It’s caused by a fungus that enters the body through the nose or mouth and travels to the brain and spinal cord, where it multiplies and causes inflammation. It is usually caused by a fungus such as Cryptococcus neoformans or Candida albicans.

Parasitic

Parasitic meningitis is also rare but can be very serious. It’s caused by a parasite that enters the body through the nose or mouth and travels to the brain and spinal cord, where it multiplies and causes inflammation. It is usually caused by a parasite such as Naegleria fowleri or Acanthamoeba species.

It is important to note which type of meningitis you have when seeking treatment. Viral meningitis is typically less severe and will usually resolve on its own without any specific treatment. Bacterial meningitis is more serious and requires prompt treatment with antibiotics to prevent serious complications and even death. If you suspect that you may have bacterial meningitis, it is important to get medical care right away.

What is the first sign of Meningitis?

One of the most important things to remember about meningitis is that early recognition and treatment are critical in ensuring a good outcome.

The first sign of meningitis can vary from person to person, but common warning signs include sudden high fever, severe headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, nausea or vomiting, confusion or difficulty concentrating, drowsiness or fatigue. Some people may also experience joint pain, confusion and rash. If you develop any combination of these symptoms of meningitis it’s important to seek medical assistance as soon as possible.

In infants and young children the first sign may be a high-pitched cry or refusal to eat, along with swollen fontanelles at the top of their heads (a bulge in the soft spot on top of the baby’s head). If you or someone you know experiences meningitis symptoms it is important to get medical attention as soon as possible – meningitis can progress quickly making prompt treatment essential.

What does a Meningitis rash look like?

The meningitis rash is a distinctive symptom of the disease, but it can be difficult to identify. It often looks like a bruise or blotchy red area and does not blanch (or pale) when you press on it. The best way to confirm if a rash is meningitis is by performing the “tumbler test”: Press a clear glass tumbler firmly against the skin – the skin should not show any redness when you remove the glass.

How is Meningitis spread?

It is spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions, such as by sneezing, coughing or kissing. While you can catch meningitis through contact with an infected person, it has also been known to be passed on indirectly through drinks, cigarettes, eating utensils and other objects that are shared and come into contact with saliva.

It is essential to remember that meningitis can be spread even if the infected individual does not exhibit symptoms. To reduce your risk of transmission, it’s important to wash hands frequently and limit close contact with sick individuals. Unfortunately, anyone can become infected so practicing good hygiene and being aware of potential symptoms is key to keeping yourself safe!

Diagnosis of Meningitis

A delay in the diagnosis of meningitis can be serious, so it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible if you believe you may have contracted it. Your medical professional will likely recommend a physical exam and run tests such as a lumbar puncture (spinal tap), a CT scan or a blood test to diagnose meningitis.

The lumbar puncture is perhaps the most common test in diagnosing this condition, as it involves collecting a sample from the spinal fluid to examine for bacteria or other signs of infection.

Depending on an individual’s symptoms and other risk factors, additional tests such as imaging scans may be recommended too. People with suspected meningitis can usually be diagnosed within one or two days, meaning any necessary treatment can be administered quickly to reduce the risk of serious complications.

Several groups of people are at an increased risk of contracting meningitis than others; these include newborn babies, children under five years old, teenagers, young adults aged 15-24 years and adults over 65. Furthermore, those with weakened immune systems, including those who have had organ transplants, those receiving chemotherapy and long-term steroid users, are also more vulnerable to getting meningitis.

If you think you may be in one of these high risk categories or have any concerning symptoms such as a fever or headache then it is strongly recommended that you seek medical advice from a healthcare professional to rule out any potential threat from meningitis.

How is it treated?

Treatment for meningitis depends on the cause of the infection and whether it is accompanied by sepsis. Generally, antibiotics are prescribed to eliminate the bacteria present in bacterial meningitis cases. However, due to the severity of bacterial meningitis, symptoms may need to be managed in intensive care settings with supportive treatments like administering fluids and oxygen, monitoring vital signs, providing pain medications and other interventions. Treatment usually involves intravenous antibiotics given into a vein in your arm or leg, as well as medications to reduce swelling around the brain such as corticosteroids.

Treatment for viral meningitis typically includes bed rest with fluids and medications, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol for fever reduction. Depending on which virus caused your infection, antiviral medications may be helpful in treating your infection more effectively.

Additionally, depending on your individual case, doctors may recommend specific therapeutic strategies for seizures associated with meningitis or drugs that reduce swelling in or around the brain tissue. It is essential to follow all instructions given by your doctor as improper treatment can worsen symptoms or lead to more complications later.

Complications of Meningitis

Meningitis can have serious complications if not treated promptly and correctly. These complications may include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Brain damage
  • Amputation of limbs
  • Septicaemia

On top of these physical symptoms, meningitis can also cause psychological issues such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Meningitis vaccination

Meningitis can be a serious and life-threatening illness that requires urgent medical help. NHS vaccination services offer protection against many types of meningitis, including MenACWY, Hib and MenB viruses.

MenACWY

MenACWY (Menningococcal ACWY) vaccine is an important vaccine for adolescents to protect from infections caused by meningococcal bacteria. This vaccine is especially important for those individuals who are at higher risk such as anyone living in a college dormitory or military facility or travelling to an area where the risk of meningococcal infection is high. The vaccine protects against four strains of the disease, offering protection for at least five years and possibly even longer in some cases.

Hib

The Hib vaccine prevents infections caused by Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). The bacterium can cause several serious conditions, including meningitis, epiglottitis, sepsis and pneumonia. The Hib vaccine is an important part of childhood immunisation that helps protect all children from getting severe infections.

MenB

The MenB vaccine helps to protect against meningococcal group B infection, which can cause life-threatening diseases like meningitis and sepsis. This type of bacteria is relatively common in young children and young adults, so it’s important for them to receive the immunization. While the MenB vaccine doesn’t guarantee that you will never get meningococcal disease, studies show it can reduce the risk by up to 88%.

It’s important to follow NHS vaccination recommendations – vaccinating your family will not only protect them from the potentially deadly effects of meningitis, but could also help to contain further outbreaks by increasing the levels of immunity in the community.

Sources

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NowPatient has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that all material is factually accurate, complete, and current. However, the knowledge and experience of a qualified healthcare professional should always be sought after instead of using the information in this page. Before taking any drug, you should always speak to your doctor or another qualified healthcare provider.

The information provided here about medications is subject to change and is not meant to include all uses, precautions, warnings, directions, drug interactions, allergic reactions, or negative effects. The absence of warnings or other information for a particular medication does not imply that the medication or medication combination is appropriate for all patients or for all possible purposes.

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