Meningitis – Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Meningitis is an inflammation (swelling) of the protective membranes covering the brain and the spinal cord. Since it is a serious health condition, it requires immediate medical intervention.

Causes of meningitis
The swelling may be caused due to viral or bacterial infections. However, in some cases, injuries, cancer, certain drugs, and other types of infections can also lead to meningitis. Commonly, acute viral and bacterial infections cause the inflammation of tissues. Fungal meningitis is rare which causes chronic meningitis. The signs of meningitis vary from person to person, depending upon his or her age and the cause of the infection.

Bacterial meningitis is a serious illness and can be life-threatening. It spreads to the brain through nasal mucus and throat secretions. It can build up in over a few hours or several days. In infants, the most common causes are Group B strep, E. coli, and Listeria monocytogenes. Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) and Neisseria meningitides (meningococcus) are often the causes of meningitis in adolescents. If left untreated for long, many complications may arise. The possible complications might include:

  • Loss of hearing
  • Epilepsy
  • Brain damage which can cause learning disabilities in children
  • Memory problems
  • Renal failure
  • Gait issues
  • Hydrocephalus or fluid buildup and brain swelling
  • Myocarditis or inflammation of the heart muscles (only if the infection reaches the heart)

Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis and is often less severe than bacterial meningitis. There is no report of severe long-term issues associated with viral meningitis. Affected people recover on their own (without any medical treatment). There is no specific treatment as antibiotics do not help viral meningitis. However, they are crucial in treating bacterial meningitis.

Viral meningitis is a communicable disease. Signs of viral meningitis are cold, diarrhea, fever, blisters, sore throat, and influenza. The most common virus that causes viral meningitis is a group known as enteroviruses or common stomach viruses. It can spread among those living in close quarters. Therefore, students living in the dorms are at a higher risk of getting infected.

Signs of meningitis
Identifying the signs of meningitis is difficult. The early symptoms of meningitis are similar to the flu signs, and therefore it can get a bit tricky to diagnose. It is pivotal to watch out for the key signs and symptoms of meningitis.

Most common signs of meningitis in children and adolescents

  • Severe headache
  • Neck stiffness or rigidity
  • Sudden high fever and chills
  • Altered consciousness

13 uncommon/additional signs of meningitis in children and adolescents

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite or thirst
  • Confusion and irritability
  • Blotchy skin or red skin rashes (In rare cases like meningococcal meningitis)
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Increased sensitivity to bright lights
  • Fast breathing
  • Abnormal change in skin color (pale skin)
  • Lack of strength
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Drowsiness
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Distress due to loud sounds

Sometimes children tend to show different kinds of symptoms of meningitis than adolescents do.

8 most common signs of meningitis in infants

  • High body temperature
  • Highly irritable
  • Wailing when being held
  • Lack of appetite
  • Excessive or inadequate sleep
  • A swelling in the soft spot on top of the baby’s head or fontanel
  • A yellowish tint to the skin (in case of jaundice)
  • Neck and body stiffness

Diagnosis and medical treatment used for meningitis
It is of utmost importance to consult your doctor if you or a family member is suffering from meningitis. This is because if the diagnosis and treatment are delayed, the condition tends to get more complicated.

Meningitis diagnosed through a test that requires a small puncture in the lower part of the spinal cord to collect a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) by inserting a needle. The CSF is then examined in a medical laboratory. The doctors might also take blood samples and CT scans to study the areas affected by swelling and inflammation.

You can prevent some forms of meningitis by immunization with the appropriate vaccines. Such vaccines are especially essential to protect your newborn from meningitis in the future. So, ensure that you talk to your doctor about it. Antibiotics are usually administered for treating meningitis. Along with antibiotics, sometimes antiviral drugs are the first treatment given for acute meningitis. Use of corticosteroids also prevents complications from excessive inflammation. But these are only to be taken under your specialist’s guidance.

It is essential that the symptoms of meningitis are diagnosed early. Even if you notice the smallest symptom, get it checked immediately. Treatment needs to start at the earliest for a speedy recovery. Seek medical intervention quickly if you or one of your loved ones are experiencing any signs of meningitis.

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