Meningitis is a relatively rare disease that can be life-threatening if not treated in time. Most cases of meningitis are caused by bacteria and viruses hosted in our bodies that spread to the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meninges), causing inflammation. In honor of World Meningitis Day, April 24, and in an effort to spread awareness of the disease, we asked Bo Kong MD, PIH Health Pediatrician, to provide her insight.
“Meningitis is a serious condition that can be prevented by maintaining a healthy lifestyle such as proper hygiene, hand washing and staying on schedule with vaccinations,” said Dr. Kong. “Meningitis often mimics flu-like symptoms and can cause severe illness in a short period of time, so it is important to seek immediate medical attention should you or your child experience any of the following symptoms: sudden high fever, severe headache, confusion, vomiting or stiff neck.”
While Dr. Kong is a Pediatrician and treats children, people of all ages can get meningitis. If anyone is having any of the symptoms mentioned, they should seek medical advice from their healthcare provider.
Additional signs and symptoms include:
- Confusion and/or difficulty concentrating
- Sleepiness or difficulty waking
- Light sensitivity
- No appetite or thirst
- Skin rash (sometimes, such as in meningococcal meningitis)
- Increased fussiness or lethargy (in babies)
- Bulging soft spot on top of the head (in babies)
Reasons Why People Get Meningitis
The most common cause of meningitis are viral infections followed by bacterial infections. Fungal and parasitic infections can rarely cause meningitis. Chemical reactions, drug allergies, certain types of cancer and inflammatory diseases can also contribute to meningitis.
- Viral meningitis – can clear on its own and is usually caused by a group of viruses called, enteroviruses. Herpes simplex virus, HIV, mumps and West Nile virus can also cause viral meningitis.
- Bacterial meningitis – caused by bacteria in the bloodstream that travel to the brain and spinal cord. Can also be caused by direct bacterial spread to the meninges. This can be due to an ear or sinus infection, skull fracture or even surgeries (although very rare)
- Fungal meningitis—is rare, causes chronic meningitis and is not contagious. Affects people with immune deficiencies. Fungal meningitis can be life-threatening if not treated with an antifungal medication.
Both bacterial and fungal infections can be life threatening which is why it is important to seek medical treatment as soon as symptoms arise.
Prevention is Key
Take preventative action with the following steps:
- Vaccinations. Keep yourself and your children up to date with vaccinations. The following vaccines help prevent some forms of bacterial meningitis: Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), Pneumococcal and Meningococcal conjugate and serogroup B. Other vaccines that work against measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox can prevent diseases leading to viral meningitis.
- Hand hygiene. Stop the spread of germs with careful hand-washing. Children should wash their hands regularly, before eating and after using the restroom, spending time in a public place or petting animals. It is important to teach them how to vigorously and thoroughly wash and rinse their hands.
- Opt out of sharing drinks and foods, eating utensils, chap sticks and toothbrushes with anyone. Teens and children should be taught to avoid sharing these items also.
- Stay healthy. Get enough rest to maintain your immune system. Exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet that includes fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Cover your mouth and nose when you need to cough or sneeze.
- Pregnant women should be cautious with food. Meats should be cooked to 165 °F to reduce the risk of listeriosis. Cheeses made from unpasteurized milk should be avoided. Only select those that are made with pasteurized milk.