Bacterial Meningitis Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention

Bacterial Meningitis Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention


What is meningitis?


Meningitis is an infection of the membranes (meninges) surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can be caused by a bacterial, fungal or viral infection. Meningitis can be acute, with a quick onset of symptoms, it can be chronic, lasting a month or more, or it can be mild or aseptic. Anyone experiencing symptoms of meningitis should see a doctor immediately.

What is bacterial meningitis?


Acute bacterial meningitis is the most common form of meningitis. Approximately 80 percent of all cases are acute bacterial meningitis. Bacterial meningitis can be life threatening. The infection can cause the tissues around the brain to swell. This in turn interferes with blood flow and can result in paralysis or even stroke.

Worldwide, meningococcal disease affects 310,000 people each year. According to the US Centers for Disease and Control (CDC), approximately 2,600 people in the United States get meningococcal disease each year.

Although infants younger than two years old are at the highest risk for meningococcal disease, first-year college students who live in dormitories also have an increased risk for the disease.

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What causes bacterial meningitis?


The most common causes of bacterial meningitis include Haemophilus influenzae type b (also known as Hib), Neisseria meningitidis, and Streptococcus pneumoniae, although Haemophilus influenzae type b is not as common as it once was due to vaccination practices. Other bacteria that can cause bacterial meningitis include Escherichia coli, group B streptococci, Listeria monocytogenes, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Bacterial meningitis is contagious and spreads from person to person through tiny droplets that are sent into the air during talking, laughing, coughing and sneezing. It can also spread by kissing, sharing eating utensils, and hand-to-hand contact. Bacterial meningitis can also be a complication of blood infection or infections in nearby sites, such as the sinuses or ears. Bacterial meningitis tends to occur in settings where people are in close contact with each other, such as daycare and school.

Sometimes meningitis occurs for no known reason. Other times it occurs after a head injury or after you have had an infection and your immune system is weakened.

Who gets bacterial meningitis?


Children between the ages of one month and two years are the most susceptible to bacterial meningitis.

Adults with certain risk factors are also susceptible. You are at higher risk if you abuse alcohol, have chronic nose and ear infections, sustain a head injury or get pneumococcal pneumonia.

You are also at higher risk if you have a weakened immune system, have had your spleen removed, are on corticosteroids because of kidney failure or have a sickle cell disease.

Additionally, if you have had brain or spinal surgery or have had a widespread blood infection you are also a higher risk for bacterial meningitis.

Outbreaks of bacterial meningitis also occur in living situations where you are in close contact with others, such as college dormitories or military barracks.

What are the symptoms of bacterial meningitis?


In older children and adults, you may see confusion, irritability, increasing drowsiness. Seizures and stroke may occur.

In newborns and small infants, the classic bacterial meningitis symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to detect. The infant may only appear slow or inactive, or be irritable, have vomiting, or be feeding poorly.

Common symptoms in anyone over the age of two years include:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck.
These symptoms can develop over several hours, or they may take one to two days.

Other symptoms of bacterial meningitis may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Discomfort when looking into bright lights
  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness.
The onset of symptoms is fast, within 24 hours. If allowed to progress, you can die from bacterial meningitis.

How is Bacterial Meningitis Spread?


A meningococcal infection is spread from person-to-person through the air or through nose and throat secretions. Sneezing, coughing, kissing, and sharing utensils or beverages can spread the disease. Some people infected by the bacteria will not have any symptoms of the disease.

How is bacterial meningitis diagnosed?


It is important that you seek immediate medical assistance if you suspect meningitis.

Your doctor will conduct a physical exam. Your doctor will look for a purple or red rash on the skin. Your doctor will check your neck for stiffness and will exam hip and knee flexion.

Your doctor will have to decide if the cause is bacterial, viral or fungal and will have to analyze your spinal fluid so a spinal tap will be ordered.

Your blood and urine may also be analyzed as well as the mucous from your nose and throat.

How is bacterial meningitis treated?


The best treatment for acute meningitis is avoiding it in the first place. Effective vaccines have been developed against the three most common causes of bacterial meningitis, Haemophilus influenzae type b, Neisseria meningitidis, and Streptococcus pneumonia.

Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics. A general intravenous antibiotic with a corticosteroid to bring down the inflammation may be prescribed even before all the test results are in. When the specific bacteria are identified, your doctor may decide to change antibiotics. In addition to antibiotics, it will be important to replenish fluids lost from loss of appetite, sweating, vomiting and diarrhea.

Preventing Bacterial Meningitis


A vaccine against four strains of Neisseria meningitidis is available, but it is not given routinely. Because college freshman who live in dormitories have a higher risk of meningococcal disease than other populations, the CDC has recommended that these students and their parents be educated about the availability of the meningococcal vaccine. The close living conditions in dormitories may place these students at a higher risk for meningococcal disease.

What are the potential complications of bacterial meningitis?


Adults with weakened immune systems and infants are at the highest risk of developing complications. Left untreated, bacterial meningitis can be a serious, even life-threatening infection in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of bacterial meningitis include:
  • Brain damage
  • Loss of hearing
  • Loss of vision or blindness
  • Seizures
  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)
  • Stroke
  • Unconsciousness and coma

Vaccines for Bacterial Meningitis


There are vaccines against Hib, some serogroups of N. meningitidis, and many types of Streptococcus pneumoniae. The vaccines against Hib are very safe and highly effective.

The CDC recommends the meningococcal vaccine for:


  • All children and adolescents ages 11 through 18
  • College freshmen living in dormitories
  • Military recruits
  • Scientists routinely exposed to meningococcal bacteria
  • Anyone traveling to or living in a part of the world where the disease is common, such as Africa
  • Anyone with a damaged spleen or who has had his or her spleen removed
  • Anyone who has terminal complement component deficiency (an immune system disorder)

The CDC does not recommend the vaccine for:


  • Anyone who has ever had a severe (life threatening) allergic reaction to a previous dose of meningococcal vaccine.
  • Anyone who has a severe (life threatening) allergy to any vaccine component. Tell your doctor if you have any severe allergies.

The CDC recommends that the following individuals wait before receiving the vaccine or talk further with their doctor about the need for the vaccine:


  • Anyone who is moderately or severely ill at the time of their scheduled appointment to receive their shot should wait until they recover.
  • Anyone who has ever had Guillain-Barre syndrome should discuss getting the vaccine with his or her doctor.
  • Pregnant women should only get the vaccine if it is clearly needed. Discuss the need with your doctor.

Can bacterial meningitis be cured?


There is a 10 percent death rate from bacterial meningitis but if diagnosed and treated early enough, most people recover.

Is bacterial meningitis contagious?


You should encourage anyone who you have come into close contact with to seek preventative treatment. Anyone who you have had casual contact should not be affected.