The membranes that surround your spinal cord and brain are called meninges. When these membranes become inflamed, the condition is called meningitis. There are several factors that cause meningitis and all may not present the same in one individual as it does in another.
The following are some of the things to look out for as these are factors of what causes meningitis:
Some of the main signs and symptoms of meningitis are caused by the swelling that occurs with the condition. These signs and symptoms include a stiff neck, headache, and fever.
What causes meningitis in the United States is mostly due to a viral infection virus, but fungal and bacterial infections can also lead to the condition. Meningitis can sometimes resolve or get better without treatment within a few weeks, or it can be a severe emergency situation that requires immediate medical treatment in order to prevent death. The severity of meningitis depends on what is causing the infection.
Early diagnosis and treatment of bacterial meningitis can help prevent life-threatening complications. For this reason, when symptoms of what causes meningitis appear, immediate action and medical care needs to be implemented.
Reasons for what causes Meningitis
Most often, meningitis is caused by a viral infection, but it can also be the result of a bacterial infection. Fungal infections can also cause meningitis, but this does not frequently occur. The most serious types of meningitis are those caused by bacterial infections. These infections can be life-threatening, so early identification of the source of the infection is crucial.
Acute bacterial meningitis most often happens when a bacterial infection is present somewhere else in the body, and the bacteria travel through the bloodstream to the spinal cord and the brain. It can also happen directly if bacteria gains access to the meninges due to a fracture in the skull, a sinus or ear infection or, in rare cases, following some surgical procedures.
There are several different strains of organisms that can cause meningitis. The ones most commonly identified to what causes meningitis (acute bacterial) include the following:
- Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus): This bacterium more frequently causes sinus or ear infections or pneumonia, but it is the most frequent cause of bacterial meningitis in the United States occurring in adults, young children, and infants. A vaccine is available to help reduce the risk of this infection.
- Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus): There is also a vaccine available to help reduce the risk of this infection which occurs mainly in young adults and teens, especially those people residing in boarding schools, college dorms and in other community settings. It is very contagious. The bacteria spread to the meninges from an infection in the upper respiratory system and causes meningitis.
- Haemophilus influenzae (haemophilus): There is an immunization available to prevent the occurrence of this infection, which used to be the major cause of childhood bacterial meningitis.
- Listeria monocytogenes (listeria): Most people who are healthy and are exposed to listeria don't become sick, but certain groups of people are susceptible to meningitis caused by this bacteria. These groups include people whose immune systems are weakened, pregnant women, older adults, and newborns. The listeria bacteria can also affect the fetus, so if a woman is infected late in her pregnancy, the baby may be stillborn or live only a short time after birth. Listeria is often found in hot dogs, lunch meats and in soft cheese.
What causes meningitis of the Viral type?
Meningitis caused by a virus is usually not a serious condition and many times it resolves with conservative treatment. Viral meningitis occurs much more often than bacterial meningitis. Most of the time, viruses belonging to a group known as enteroviruses are the cause of viral meningitis in the United States. These cases of meningitis usually occur most frequently in the later summer months and in the early fall. Other viruses can also cause viral meningitis, such as West Nile virus, herpes simplex virus, HIV, mumps, and others.
What causes chronic meningitis?
Some of the signs and symptoms of chronic meningitis mimic those of acute meningitis: fever, headaches, vomiting and mental fogginess, but the development of the illness is different. Acute meningitis comes on very suddenly, but chronic meningitis develops slowly. This is due to the slow-growing infections that infect the fluid and the membranes that surround the brain. This form of meningitis develops over a period of two or more weeks.
One of the causes of chronic meningitis is fungal meningitis. This condition does not occur frequently, and it is not contagious or spread from person to person. Its symptoms are often similar to those of bacterial meningitis. One common type of fungal meningitis is Cryptococcal meningitis, and if it is not treated with antifungal drugs, it is a life-threatening condition. It most often affects people with compromised immune systems.
A multi-state outbreak of fungal meningitis occurred in 2012 due to the use of contaminated medications in spinal injections used to treat neck or back pain.
Other causes of meningitis
Meningitis can sometimes occur for reasons unrelated to infections including drug allergies, chemical reactions and some types of inflammatory diseases.
There are certain factors that may increase your risk of developing meningitis. They include:
Skipping immunizations: The risk for meningitis is increased for people who have not received all of the recommended childhood or adult immunizations (vaccines).
Age: Viral meningitis is most likely to occur in children who are less than 5 years old. People under the age of 20 are more likely to contract bacterial meningitis, especially if they are living with others in places like college dormitories or other community settings.
Place of residence: People who live on military bases, children in boarding school or young adults in dormitories have an increased likelihood of meningococcal meningitis. This type of the infection is spread via the respiratory route so it can quickly spread where groups of people live together.
Pregnancy: An infection called listeriosis is more common during pregnancy and this infection also causes meningitis. This condition may also spread to the unborn baby.
Compromised immunity: When your immune system isn't able to fight off infection, you are at increased risk for meningitis. Conditions that may compromise your body's immunity include diabetes, AIDS, alcoholism, and taking immunosuppressive medications. People who have had their spleen removed may also be at increased risk, as it is a vital component of the immune system.
The longer meningitis goes untreated, the greater the risk of negative outcomes due to the disease. Some of these complications from meningitis can be severe, including seizures and lasting neurological damage. These complications include:
- Memory problems
- Hearing loss
- Brain damage
- Learning disabilities
- Difficulty walking
- Kidney failure
The signs and symptoms of meningitis may come on very quickly, developing over only a few hours, or they may develop over a few days. It can be very easy to mistake the early signs of meningitis for influenza or the "flu."
In anyone over 2 years old, the following signs and symptoms of meningitis may occur:
- A high fever that occurs suddenly
- Cold hands and feet
- A very painful headache that isn't like any other type of a headache
- Stiffness and rigidity in the neck is a classic sign of meningitis
- Nausea or vomiting along with a headache can be a sign of meningitis
- The trouble with concentrating, or confusion
- Seizures can be a sign of meningitis
- Excessive sleepiness or being difficult to arouse can be a sign of meningitis
- Light sensitivity is a symptom of meningitis
- Loss of appetite
- Drowsy and unresponsive
- In some cases, especially in meningococcal meningitis, a skin rash may be present
Signs and symptoms of meningitis in newborns
Meningitis is a series condition and it affects various age groups and often if gone untreated will and could result in death. Sadly, even newborn babies are not exempt from the dangers of contracting it. Many times infants and newborns do not have the typical signs of meningitis, such as a stiff neck and headache. Signs of the condition in children under the age of 2 includes:
- Constant crying
- Cold hands and feet
- High fever is a sign of meningitis in a newborn
- Lack of activity increased sleepiness
- Poor nursing or feeding
- Rigidity or stiffness in the body and neck is a sign of meningitis in an infant
- Irritability, inability to be comforted
- Bulging of the soft spot on the top of an infant's head can be a sign of meningitis
- Drowsy and or unresponsive
When to see a doctor
It is critical to get medical care immediately in the presence of the following signs and symptoms of meningitis:
- Stiff or rigid neck
- Extremely painful and unrelenting headache
While viral meningitis may not require emergency treatment, bacterial meningitis can quickly become life-threatening. Putting off treatment increases the chance of severe complications or death. There is no way of knowing what type of meningitis is causing the symptoms without seeing a doctor. In addition, if you live, work with or are in close contact with someone who has meningitis, talk to your doctor about preventative medications.
In order to diagnose meningitis, your physician will want to know you or your child's medical history and perform a thorough physical examination.
During the examination, the physician will be checking for evidence of meningitis, especially around the throat, ears and head and the skin surfaces of the spine. There are tests that are used to make a diagnosis of meningitis and the results of these tests can also be used to guide your doctor in your care and treatment.
- Blood cultures: To check for meningitis, blood will be taken from one of your veins and sent to a laboratory. It will be examined in different ways to see if bacteria are present and it will also be placed in a special container to see what kind of bacteria, if any, grow.
- Imaging studies: Computerized tomography, also called CT scans, and X-rays of the sinuses, head or chest can show if there is any swelling present in these areas. Scans and X-rays may be taken of other parts of your body to help your doctor find the source of your infection.
- Lumbar puncture: This is also called a "spinal tap." To make a definitive decision that meningitis is present, the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord and brain, known as the cerebrospinal fluid or CSF needs to be examined in a laboratory. To obtain a sample of CSF, a lumbar puncture is completed. The fluid is collected by inserting a needle into the space between two vertebrae and withdrawing the CSF into a syringe. If meningitis is present, the cerebrospinal fluid will typically contain an increased amount of protein and white blood cells and a decreased amount of glucose. By examining the CSF fluid, your physician may also be able to identify the microorganism that is causing meningitis, so the correct antibiotics can be prescribed.
Home test for signs and symptoms of meningitis
As mentioned, meningitis can sometimes have a side effect and symptom that includes a rash, but you can test the rash to see whether or not it is related to meningitis. Patients with Septicaemia may develop meningitis due to the infection within the blood. In some cases, these patients may develop meningitis or a rash that could be as a result of the development of meningitis. Use a glass to test the signs and symptoms of meningitis at the appearance of a rash:
- Press a clear glass onto the rash
- The rash spots may fade while the pressure is applied
- If the patient has a fever and the rash, check to see if the spots fade with the pressure of the clear glass
- If the rash does not fade under the pressure, seek immediate medical assistance
It is important to seek immediate medical care as soon as the individual begins to showcase signs and symptoms of meningitis.
The treatment of meningitis depends on the type of infection or another factor that is causing the condition.
Immediate treatment for meningitis with intravenous antibiotics is needed to treat acute bacterial meningitis. Corticosteroids are also given to help reduce the chance of complications such as seizures and swelling of the brain. Cortisone medications also help to ensure recovery from meningitis. The antibiotics used to treat bacterial meningitis depend on what type of bacteria is responsible for the infection. Sometimes it may take several days for the tests to provide the doctor with this information. Until this information is available, your physician may prescribe treatment for meningitis with a broad-spectrum antibiotic that is effective against several different types of organisms.
If the sinuses or the bones that lie behind the outer portion of the ear, connecting to the middle ear (the mastoids) are infected, they may need to be drained.
Viral meningitis cannot be cured by antibiotics. In most instances, it resolves without the treatment for meningitis which may be within a few weeks. If the case of viral meningitis is mild, it is usually treated at home with measures such as:
- An increase in the number of fluids taken in
- Staying in bed and getting plenty of rest to help recover from meningitis
- Taking non-prescription medications to help relieve pain and reduce fever associated with meningitis
If a herpes virus has caused the infection, an anti-viral medication can be prescribed by your physician.
Other types of meningitis
If it is difficult to determine the cause of meningitis, both an antibiotic and an antiviral medication may be started until a reason for meningitis can be established.
Treatment for meningitis may include antifungal drugs. These drugs are used to treat fungal meningitis, but these medications can have severe side effects. For this reason, treatment with antifungal drugs is not initiated until the cause of meningitis is confirmed as being fungal in nature. The cause of chronic meningitis is often a fungal infection.
If meningitis is caused by something other than an infection such as an autoimmune disorder or an allergic reaction, the treatment for meningitis of this nature may include corticosteroid drugs. In some cases, meningitis resolves without treatment. Meningitis caused by cancer is treated by initiating treatment for the specific type of cancer.
Meningitis is most often the result of an infection that is spread from person to person. The viruses and bacteria that commonly cause meningitis are spread through the respiratory tract by sneezing, coughing, sharing silverware or straws, kissing or sharing a cigarette or toothbrush. If you work with or live with someone who has meningitis, you are also at increased risk of developing the disease.
There are steps you can take to help reduce your chances of getting meningitis. They include:
- Practice good hand-washing: Careful hand-washing includes covering the back as well as the front of both hands with soap and rubbing the surfaces vigorously, then rinsing well under running water. Hands should always be washed after using the restroom, before eating, after petting animals and after spending time in public crowds. Hand-washing is the best way to prevent the spread of infections, including meningitis. Teach your children when and how to wash their hands.
- Don't share: Practice good common hygiene. Avoid sharing anything that goes in or near your mouth: toothbrushes, lip balms, food, drink or straws, silverware, cigarettes. Teach your children to be "selfish" with these items, too. This can reduce your risk of meningitis.
- Practice healthy habits: Keep your immune system strong to reduce your risk of infections like meningitis through regular exercise, adequate sleep and a balanced diet consisting mostly of vegetables, fresh fruits, and whole grains.
- Cover your mouth: If you're sick, stay home. If you do have to sneeze or cough, sneeze or cough into your elbow, covering your nose and mouth.
- Be aware of listeria sources if you are pregnant: You can reduce your chances of developing an infection from listeria by cooking all meat to 165 Fahrenheit (74 Celsius). This includes lunch meat, deli meats, and hot dogs. Avoid soft cheeses like Camembert, Brie, queso and feta and any dairy products made from unpasteurized milk.
Treatment for meningitis and to help prevent it may include immunizations
The following immunizations can help prevent some types of bacterial meningitis:
- Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) vaccine: This vaccination is on the recommended schedule of immunizations for children in the US and is given in a series beginning when an infant is approximately 2 months old. Hib is also recommended for adults with AIDS, sickle cell disease and for people who do not have a spleen.
- Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV7): In addition to being on the recommended schedule of immunizations for children under the age of 2 in the United States, this vaccine is also recommended for high-risk children who are between 2 and 5 years old. This includes children who have cancer or chronic lung or heart disease.
- Haemophilus influenza type b and Neisseria meningitidis serogroups C and Y vaccine (Hib-MenCY): This immunization is given in a series of 4 doses to children between the ages of 2 months and 15 months who are at increased risk for developing meningococcal meningitis. This would include children with sickle cell anemia and those whose spleen is not functioning correctly.
- Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV): The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend this vaccine for all people over 65 years old, for all people who do not have a spleen and for children and adults younger than 65 who have a chronic illness or compromised immune systems.
- Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4): This vaccine is recommended by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for all children between 11 and 12 years old with a booster given at 16 years old. If the first dose is given after the child is 16, no booster is needed. This vaccine can also be given to much younger children; as small as 9 months who are at high risk for bacterial meningitis or to children and adults who are healthy in the case of an outbreak of the disease.