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What is Bacterial Meningitis?

By Pfizer Medical Team — This article originally published on Get Healthy Stay Healthy

In 2012 and 2013, bacterial meningitis outbreaks on college campuses have brought public attention to questions about the disease, including what it is, how it is treated and spread, and how it may be prevented. This article is meant to shed some light on the basics of bacterial meningitis.

Q. What is bacterial meningitis? 
A: Bacterial meningitis is a very serious infection of the brain. The name meningitis refers to the swelling of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, called the meninges. Though fungi, viruses, drugs, cancer, and physical injury may also cause such swelling, meningitis is usually caused by bacteria and viruses, and there are vaccines to help prevent some types of bacterial and viral meningitis. Viral meningitis, although serious, is rarely life-threatening, while bacterial meningitis can be life-threatening, and requires immediate medical attention.

Q. How does someone get exposed to the bacteria that cause meningitis?
A: The types of bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis are very common in the environment. In fact, it can be found in your nose and throat without causing illness or harm. The reason that the bacteria may cause meningitis in some people is often unknown, though a head injury or a weakened immune system may play a role in causing the disease.

Q. How is bacterial meningitis transmitted?
A: Coughing, sneezing, sharing drinks, kissing, and sharing eating utensils, toothbrushes, or cigarettes can transmit bacterial meningitis. Though rare, local outbreaks have happened in areas with close quarters like college dormitories, boarding schools, and military bases. This is because bacteria are easily spread during close and prolonged contact with someone who is symptomatic in the same living or working space. Direct contact with a patient's oral secretions can also transmit contagious disease. Bacterial meningitis most commonly affects infants, teenagers, and young adults.

Q. What are the symptoms of bacterial meningitis?
A: Symptoms may include sudden high fever, confusion, headaches, neck stiffness, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and pain. Affected infants and newborns may cry and be irritable or appear drowsy and inactive. In severe cases, seizures and notable head swelling may be present.

Q. How is bacterial meningitis treated?
A: The severity of the disease advances very quickly, so getting medical attention immediately is very important. Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics, generally given through an I.V. (through a vein). In some patients, additional treatment may be given to reduce swelling of the brain. Because symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, sweating, vomiting and diarrhea, additional fluids are given to address and avoid dehydration.

Q. It sounds like most people are treated successfully. Are they cured?
A: Most people who are treated promptly, and with appropriate antibiotics, can recover fully. But it is a serious illness that may get worse quickly. Meningitis can cause hearing loss, brain damage, paralysis and other severe consequences. The risk of dying from bacterial meningitis is reduced to less than 15% with appropriate treatment and preventive measures.

Q. Who should get vaccinated for the most common types of bacteria that cause meningitis?
A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommend vaccines against certain types of the most common bacteria that cause meningitis. The schedule of vaccinations is based on age and risk of being exposed to the bacteria. Parents and children should discuss the vaccinations with health care providers and keep a record of all vaccinations.
 

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