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Bacterial Meningitis

Symptoms and treatment

Meningitis is an infection of the thin tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord. The most common type of meningitis is viral. Bacterial meningitis is rarer, but deadlier.

Only a doctor will be able to determine which type of meningitis you have, so it's important to make an appointment right away if you have these symptoms, which are often mistaken for the flu:

  • Fever
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Trouble staying awake, or trouble waking up
  • Confusion or lack of concentration
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sensitivity to light

Babies with meningitis may be cranky and refuse to eat. They may cry constantly and prefer lying down to being held. They may be sleepier than usual. The soft spots on an infant's head may bulge.

Left untreated, bacterial meningitis can cause permanent brain damage or death within a matter of days. The definitive test for meningitis is a spinal tap, which collects fluid from a patient's spinal cord. Lab tests on the spinal fluid can pinpoint which bacteria are causing the problem. Your doctor may also order blood work, a throat culture, X-rays or a CT scan.

Intravenous antibiotics, in a hospital, are the typical treatment for bacterial meningitis. The exact antibiotics used depend on which bacteria are infecting the patient. The doctor may prescribe a broad spectrum antibiotic until lab tests narrow the focus to the troublemaker.

Bacterial meningitis can have serious complications, including loss of hearing or speech, blindness, behavior problems, learning disabilities and even paralysis. It may also cause kidney failure and compromise the adrenal glands. It can cause shock and death.

These groups have an increased risk of meningitis:

  • The very young (5 and under) and older adults. Young adults aged 15 to 24 are also more likely to become infected.
  • Those living in close quarters, such as college dorms, military bases, boarding schools and day care centers, which allow the infection to spread rapidly.
  • Pregnant women and those who work with farm animals. Both groups are more likely to be infected with listeria, which can cause meningitis.
  • People with compromised immune systems, or those who have had their spleen removed.

Meningitis can be spread through kissing, sharing food or utensils, coughing, sneezing and being around someone who is infected. Pregnant women can pass the infection to their newborn. The most important way to prevent meningitis in children is to follow the course of recommended vaccinations. Other precautions include:

  • Frequent hand washing
  • Good sleep habits
  • A healthy diet
  • Making sure meats are thoroughly cooked
  • Additional vaccines may be recommended for those at high risk

By Beth Navage

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