Meningitis is an infection of the lining (meninges) and the fluid that cover the outside of the brain and spinal cord. The infection can spread into the brain tissue and cause brain damage in about 10% of cases. The disease is fatal in another 10% of cases. A viral form of meningitis exists but is generally less serious.
In 2003, meningitis was affecting about 3,000 people in the United States each year, and the number of cases in those aged 15 to 24 had nearly doubled in the previous 10 years.
There are two main causes:
Meningococcal bacteria are around us all the time. Even healthy people may have the bacteria in their nose or throat, and usually this does not cause disease. In rare cases, the bacteria can get into the blood or brain, and cause serious illness.
Meningococcal bacteria are carried in saliva or droplets from the nose of an infected person. Sneezing, coughing, kissing, or sharing cigarettes, food, drinks, or other things that contain saliva can all help to pass the bacteria from one person to another. From the time the bacteria get into a person's mouth or nose, it may take from two to ten days for the person to become sick. The average time is three to four days.
Many people will get the bacteria when they are children and will develop life-long protection by the time they are teenagers.
The main symptoms are:
In infants, you cannot determine if they have neck stiffness because they are too young to communicate this. Severe, inconsolable irritability and/or lethargy (meaning limp, lifeless, won't open eyes to focus on you) are signs of any severe infection, including meningitis.
If there is infection in the blood, a purplish skin rash that looks like bruising may also occur. By the time this rash appears the infection is very serious and the person must be treated as soon as possible.
If the doctor decides that there is a chance of meningitis being present, the doctor will recommend a spinal tap. There is no way to diagnose meningitis without a spinal tap.
Severe cases – especially those untreated or treated too late – can cause deafness, paralysis, and mental retardation.
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