A Primer on Meningitis


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Winter break is ending for many students, which means back to school. For college students, it means back to dorm living. When students live so close to one another, germs and illness spread easily and quickly. Which lead me to what inspired this blog post—the most recent meningitis cases at two American universities. CNN Health reported on a meningitis outbreak at University of California, Santa Barbara and earlier this month, CBS Baltimore reported an undergraduate student at Loyola University Maryland was diagnosed with a possible case of bacterial meningitis. Continue reading to learn more about this illness and learn about prevention measures you can use to help your child stay healthy.

Two Most Common Types of Meningitis

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) covering the brain and spinal cord. Most cases of meningitis are caused by common bacteria or viruses.

  1. Viral meningitis is the more common type of meningitis. If your child has viral meningitis, they may show symptoms similar to the flu.
  2. Bacterial meningitis is more severe than viral meningitis and can be life threatening if not treated right away (The students in the two media stories above, were diagnosed with bacterial meningitis).

Meningitis can affect people of all ages so it’s important to understand what it is and recognize the symptoms, which I discuss below.

What Causes Meningitis?

When your child’s skin, urinary system, gastrointestinal or respiratory tract becomes infected with a bacteria or viruses, it can travel through their blood stream and eventually enter the fluid that circulates in and around the spinal cord and brain (cerebrospinal fluid). The bacteria and viruses that can cause meningitis are spread from person to person when there is close and long-term contact, usually in the same household, day care or college dorm. If a child infected with meningitis allows their bodily fluids (coughing, sneezing, snot, etc.) to contact another child, the other child is at risk for becoming ill. Even more reason to keep your child at home if they become sick with meningitis or keep your child away from those who are ill.A Primer on Meningitis

The people most at risk for contracting meningitis are,

  • Newborns and infants
  • College students living in dorms
  • Military personnel
  • Older adults

Symptoms of Meningitis

Meningitis symptoms can vary by age and the cause of infection. Often symptoms of bacterial and viral meningitis are similar so prompt medical attention is necessary to determine if treatment is needed. Common symptoms of meningitis usually develop within three to seven days of exposure and can include:

  • Confusion and lowered level of consciousness
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck

Meningitis in Infants

It is more difficult to discover symptoms of meningitis in infants. The symptoms can include:

  • Bulging soft spot on top/front of your infant’s head
  • Extreme irritability (difficult to comfort even when held)
  • High-pitched cry
  • Poor feeding
  • Unusually sleepy and inactive (sluggish)

Viral meningitis often resolves on its own in seven to ten days without complications. On the other hand, bacterial meningitis can lead to a very serious and fatal bloodstream infection. If you think your child has bacterial meningitis, contact their pediatrician immediately or take them to your closest emergency department.

Prevent Meningitis from Affecting Your Family

Viral Meningitis  Unlike bacterial meningitis, there are no vaccines to prevent a virus from causing viral meningitis. The best prevention method is practicing excellent hygiene habits. Hygiene habits involve,

  • Wash hands for at least 20 seconds under warm water with soap. Wash often, especially before eating and after using the restroom.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing. Follow by washing your hands!
  • Avoid sharing utensils, drinking glasses and kissing others when sick.
  • Clean contaminated surfaces, such as doorknobs, the TV remote control, refrigerator handles, daily.

Bacterial Meningitis The most effective way to protect you and your child against bacterial meningitis is to complete your child’s recommended vaccine schedule. “In the past 30 years, the incidence of bacterial meningitis has greatly diminished thanks to vaccines,” says Jeffrey Bender, MD, medical director, Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Some of the microorganisms that cause meningitis can be prevented by routine childhood vaccines against Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b), measles, mumps, polio, meningococcus (meningitis) and pneumococcus (pneumonia). Knowing more about meningitis and prevention methods is a strong step to making sure your family remains healthy. Washing hands is an easy way to prevent many illnesses, so always give your family a friendly reminder that clean hands equals happy bodies.