Meningitis

Meningitis

Overview

Meningitis refers to an inflammation of the meninges, which are the three membranes surrounding the brain and the spinal cord. Meningitis occurs when the fluid surrounding the meninges becomes infected with viral or bacterial infections. The condition could also be triggered by drug allergies, cancer or fungal infection. Certain infections that cause meningitis are contagious, transmitting from one patient to another via coughing, sneezing or close contact. Meningitis can afflict patients of any age. Early detection and treatment are crucial to prevent complications.

Signs and symptoms

Early meningitis exhibits typical influenza symptoms. This includes sudden high fever, severe headache, nausea and vomiting. The patient may also experience stiffness of muscles, seizures, sensitivity to light, dizziness, confusion and rashes. In infants, meningitis could cause a bulge or a soft spot on the baby’s head called a fontanel, excessive sleeping or irritability, poor feeding, vomiting, high fever, and sluggishness.

Causes

Meningitis is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection that begins in the ears, sinuses or throat. Viruses that can cause meningitis include the West Nile virus, influenza, HIV, mumps, measles and herpes. Meningitis could also be caused by auto-immune disorders, syphilis, tuberculosis or cancer medications.

Risk factors

Meningitis is common in children below the age of 5, teenagers and geriatric adults. People who are immune compromised, such as patients with HIV and auto-immune disorders, are at a higher risk of contracting meningitis. Meningitis spreads easily in places where communities live in close quarters, like college dorms, boarding schools and barracks. Pregnant women and people who work with animals are at an increased risk of contracting a listeriosis infection, which can cause meningitis.

Complications

The complications typically associated with meningitis are seizures, migraines and memory problems.Meningitis could also cause hearing or vision loss if it has afflicted the concerned part of the brain. In severe cases, it could cause hydrocephalus (a build-up of fluid in the brain) or a subdural empyema (a build-up of fluid between the brain and the skull). These would put pressure on the brain tissue and cause loss of function, which would become permanent if left untreated. Meningitis could also cause toxins and infection to be released into the blood stream, through which it can spread to other parts of the body. This could result in gangrene. Meningitis could also cause pneumonia.

Diagnosis

Meningitis is diagnosed with the help of a physical exam, a detailed medical history, a panel of blood tests to diagnose infection, a CT scan or an MRI scan to check for swelling of the meninges, and a spinal tap. The spinal tap is a conclusive test to identify the cause of the infection.

Treatment

The treatment depends on the type of meningitis in question. Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics. Viral meningitis usually goes away on its own without treatment. Rest, fluids and over-the-counter pain medications are recommended at this time. However, for more serious cases of viral meningitis, the doctor may prescribe antiviral medication. Antifungal medication is prescribed to treat fungal meningitis. Parasitic meningitis may be treated symptomatically, or by attempting to eliminate the source infection.

Prevention

Meningitis is caused by a bacterial, viral or fungal infection so the key to preventing it is essentially good hygiene. Wash your hands frequently. Do not share personal objects like toothbrushes and personal cosmetics. Cover your mouth and nose if you cough or sneeze. Be sure to get all your vaccinations as well.

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