What is Meningitis?
Meningitis is an inflammation of the covering of the brain and spinal cord. It can be cause by viruses, parasites, fungi and bacteria. Viral meningitis is the most common and the least serious. Bacterial meningitis is the most common form of serious bacterial infection with the potential for serious, long-term complications. It is an uncommon disease, but requires urgent treatment with antibiotics to prevent permanent damage or death.
How is Bacterial Meningitis spread?
Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as diseases like the common cold or flu, and they are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been. The germs live naturally in the back of our noses and throats, but they do not live long outside the body. They are spread when people exchange saliva (such as by kissing, sharing drinking containers, utensils or cigarettes). The germ does not cause meningitis in most people. Instead, most people become a carrier of the germ for days, weeks or even months. The bacteria rarely overcomes the body's immune system and causes meningitis or another serious illness.
How is Viral Meningitis spread?
Different viruses that cause viral meningitis are spread in different ways. Enteroviruses, the most common cause of viral meningitis, are most often spread through direct contact with an infected person's stool. The virus is spread through this route mainly among small children who are not yet toilet trained. It can also be spread this way to adults changing the diapers of an infected infant.
Enteroviruses and other viruses (such as mumps and varicella-zoster virus) can also be spread through direct or indirect contact with respiratory secretions (saliva, sputum, or nasal mucus) of an infected person. This usually happens through kissing or shaking hands with an infected person or by touching something they have handled and then rubbing your own nose or mouth. The viruses can also stay on surfaces for days and can be transferred from objects. Viruses also can spread directly when infected people cough or sneeze and send droplets containing the virus into the air we breathe.
The time from when a person is infected until they develop symtoms (incubation period) is usually between 3 and 7 days for enteroviruses. An infected person is usually contagious from the time they develop symptoms until the symptoms go away.
What are the symptoms of Bacterial Meningitis?
Someone with meningitis will become very ill. The illness may develop over one or two days but can also rapidly progress in a matter of hours. Not everyone with meningitis will have the same symptoms. Children (over 1 year old) and adults with meningitis may have a severe headache, high temperature, vomiting, sensitivity to bright lights, neck stiffness or joint pains, and drowsiness or confusion. In both children and adults, there may be a rash of tiny red-purple spots. These can occur anywhere on the body. The diagnosis of bacterial meningitis is based on a combination of symptoms and laboratory results.
What are the symptoms of Viral Meningitis?
Symptoms can appear quickly or they can also take several days to appear, usually after a cold or runny nose, diarrhea, vomiting, or other signs of infection show up. Symptoms in adults may differ from those in children. The symptoms can included fever, severe headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to bright light, sleepiness, nausea, or lack of appetite.
How is Meningitis treated?
Treatment for viral meningitis is less aggressive than that of bacterial meningitis. It often consists of use of acetaminophen or other similar pain medications used to make the effected person more comfortable. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, often requires admittance to the hospital for observation and subsequent treatment as needed.
How can Bacterial Meningitis be prevented?
Do not share food, drinks, utensils, toothbrushes or cigarettes. Limit the number of persons you kiss. While there are vaccines for some of the strains of bacterial meningitis, they are used only in special circumstances. These include when there is a disease outbreak in a community or for people traveling to a country where there is a high risk of getting the disease. Also a vaccine is recommended for college students, particularly freshmen living in dorms or residence halls. It can cause mild side effects, such as redness and pain at the injection site, lasting up to 2 days. Immunity develops within seven to ten days after the vaccine is given and lasts for up to five years.
How can Viral Meningitis be prevented?
Following good hygiene practices can reduce the spread of viruses, such as enteroviruses, herpesviruses, and measles and mumps viruses. Preventing the spread of virus can be difficult, especially since sometimes people are infected with a virus (like an enterovirus) but do not appear sick. In such cases, infected people can still spread the virus to others. Thus, it is important to always practice good hygiene to help reduce your chances of becoming infected with a virus or of passing one on to someone else.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water
- Clean contaminated surfaces with soap and water
- Cover you cough
- Avoid kissing or sharing a drinking glass, eating utensil, lipstick or other such item with sick people.
- Getting vaccinations included the childhood vaccination schedule (MMR and Varicella-Zoster)
- Avoid bites from mosquitoes and other insects that carry diseases
- Clean up anything in and around your home that could invite rodent infestation.
How serious is Meningitis?
Viral ("aseptic") meningitis is serious but rarely fatal in people with normal immune systems. Usually, the symptoms last from 7 to 10 days and the patient recovers completely. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, can be very serious and result in disability or death if not treated promptly. Often, the symptoms of viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis are the same. For this reason, if you think you or your child has meningitis, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Where can you get more information?
Your school Heatlh Office, family doctor, and the staff at your local health department are excellent sources of information on all communicable diseases. You may also call your doctor, health department or school Health Office for information on the meningococcal vaccine.
Parents of students with a communicable or contagious disease are asked to telephone the school Health Office so that other students who have been exposed to the disease can be alerted. Students with communicable disease are not allowed to come to school while they are contagious.