Identifying and treating meningitis
From time to time, we hear scary stories about meningitis outbreaks in schools, daycares or college dorms. Meningitis is a serious disease that can cause neurological damage or even death if not treated promptly. Though it is not very likely that it will ever affect your family, it is important to know the signs and symptoms.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes lining the central nervous system. It is often called "spinal meningitis" since it affects the brain and spinal cord. Diagnosis often involves a spinal tap. It is usually brought on by an infection, but it can more rarely result from an injury, certain illnesses such as cancer, or certain drugs.
Viral meningitis is very common, but fortunately, it is usually not serious. It causes flu-like symptoms and clears up on its own in a few days. It is often not even diagnosed, as most people assume it is simply the flu.
Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, is rare but life-threatening. It may come on suddenly or after several days of cold or flu symptoms. Bacterial meningitis symptoms include:
- Severe headache
- High fever
- Stiff neck (difficulty bending the neck forward)
- Altered mental state (lethargy or delirium)
- Sensitivity to light
- Sensitivity to noise
- Skin rash
The symptoms of meningitis in infants are slightly different:
- Extreme irritability (not comforted when held or rocked)
- Fever or lower-than-usual temperature
- Stiffness of body and neck
- Weak suck or poor feeding
- Jaundice (yellowish tint to the skin)
- High-pitched cry
- Swelling of the fontanel (soft spot)
The first three (headache, fever and stiff neck) are the classic signs of meningitis, but any combination of these symptoms is possible. If your child has any of these symptoms, or if you suspect meningitis for any reason, see an emergency doctor immediately. It is critical to begin treatment as soon as possible.
If not treated in time, bacterial meningitis can have serious complications, including:
- Hearing loss or deafness
- Vision loss
- Brain damage
Upon admission to the hospital, patients with suspected meningitis are given intravenous antibiotics right away, even before the diagnosis is confirmed, to be sure no time is lost in treatment. In addition, corticosteroids may be given to reduce the swelling in the brain and spinal membranes. Hospitalization for a few days may be necessary, especially if there are secondary symptoms such as seizures.
After the patient has recovered, there will be follow-up tests to check for neurological damage such as hearing loss, vision loss or learning disabilities.
If you or your child has been exposed to someone with meningitis, you should contact your doctor or health unit right away. They may want to start a preventative course of antibiotics in case you were infected.
Bacterial meningitis is very contagious and is spread by droplets of saliva from kissing, coughing, sneezing, laughing and talking. As with all infectious diseases, you can reduce the risk of contracting meningitis by practicing good hygiene. Teach your children to wash their hands and to avoid sharing food and drink, straws and other eating utensils, as well as toothbrushes, tissues, towels and anything else that comes into contact with bodily fluids.
While there is no meningitis vaccine, per se, there are vaccines against some of the bacteria that can cause meningitis. The haemophilus vaccine (HiB vaccine), pneumococcal conjugate vaccine and quadrivalent meningococcal vaccine (MCV4) each can reduce the risk of certain types of meningitis.