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Knowing what it is, its causes, and symptoms can be lifesaving knowledge.


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HealthOur health and the health or family members is something we often take for granted. We go about our days and our lives focused on the more pressing matters that demand our immediate attention. When family health issues do arise they typically involve more common maladies such as colds, influenza, and chicken pox. Most of the time such conditions cause some minor discomfort, can be treated with over-the-counter medications, and may result in a few lost school or workdays. They usually pass within a week or two and life soon returns to normal. There are, however, times when more serious health situations come into play and the results can be devastating for an individual and/or family. One such health issue is the bacterial infection known as meningitis.

According to the National Meningitis Foundation (NMA), meningococcal disease affects nearly 3,000 Americans, especially adolescents and young adults, each year. Although the disease is considered rare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that between 10% and 12% of meningitis cases are fatal resulting in between 300 and 360 deaths each year.

Meningitis is defined as an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) and cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord, usually due to the spread of an infection. The swelling that is associated with meningitis often triggers the symptoms of the condition, which include headache, fever, and a stiff neck.

There are basically three types of meningitis—viral, bacterial, and fungal. Most cases of meningitis are caused by a viral infection. While more rare, bacterial and fungal infections can also result in meningitis. According to the CDC, viral meningitis is usually less severe and can be resolved without specific treatment whereas bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result in brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disability. Knowing whether the cause is bacterial or viral is important since the severity of the illness and the treatment options differ.

The Mayo Clinic notes that bacterial meningitis occurs when bacteria enter the bloodstream and migrate to the brain and spinal cord. Infection can also occur when bacteria directly invade the membranes surrounding the brain as the result of an ear infection, sinus infection, or skull fracture.

HealthThe Mayo Clinic adds that most cases of viral meningitis occur in children younger than 5 years of age. In the past, bacterial meningitis usually affected young children but since the mid-1980s, as a result of protection gained by childhood vaccines, the median age at which bacterial meningitis is diagnosed has shifted from 15 months to 25 years. So not completing a child's vaccine schedule increases the risk of meningitis. Most cases of meningitis that make the news occur on college campuses. One of the risk factors for meningitis is living in a community setting such as dormitories, military bases, childcare facilities, and boarding schools. The National Meningitis Association (NMA) notes that most cases of meningitis occur in late winter to early spring.

The CDC states that high fever, headache, and stiff neck are common symptoms of meningitis in anyone over the age of 2 years. The symptoms can develop over several hours or over the course of 1 to 2 days. Additional symptoms include confusion, sleepiness, discomfort looking into bright lights, nausea, and vomiting. The classic symptoms of neck stiffness, fever, and headache are hard to detect in newborns and infants however they may appear irritable, slow or inactive, may be vomiting, or feeding poorly. The Mayo Clinic adds that additional signs in newborns may include a bulge in the soft spot on top of the baby's head (fontanel), and that infants with meningitis may be difficult to comfort and may even cry harder when picked up. As the disease progresses, patients of any age may experience seizures.

Early diagnosis and treatment are very important with meningitis, both for the health of the patient and those around the patient since some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious. The CDC states that the bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (kissing and coughing) but cannot be spread by casual contact or simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been. The NMA states that the disease spreads quickly and within hours of the first symptoms can cause organ failure, brain damage, amputations of limbs or even death—making prompt diagnosis and treatment all the more important.

If symptoms of meningitis are present patient should see a doctor immediately. A diagnosis is usually made by growing bacteria from a sample of spinal fluid obtained during a spinal tap. By identifying the type of bacteria responsible, the correct antibiotic treatment options can be determined. The CDC states that bacterial meningitis can be treated with a number of effective antibiotics but it is important to remember that treatment must be started early in the course of the disease. Proper antibiotic treatment of the most common types of meningitis can reduce the risk of dying from meningitis to below 15%.

There are steps to take to help prevent exposure to meningitis. The Mayo Clinic suggests the following:

  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.
  • Stay healthy by maintaining your immune system. Get enough rest, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • If you're pregnant you can reduce your risk of developing listeriosis (a bacteria that can be found anywhere—in soil, dust and in foods that have become contaminated) by cooking meat thoroughly and avoiding cheeses made from unpasteurized milk.
  • Careful hand washing is an important practice to avoid exposure to infectious agents. Teach children to wash their hands often, especially before they eat, after using the toilet, after spending time in crowded public places, or petting animals.

The good news is that immunization is available and vaccination offers the best protection against the disease. The CDC recommends meningococcal immunization (one shot) for all adolescents 11 through 18 years of age. It adds that others who wish to be immunized against the disease should speak to their health care provider.

Although meningitis is a rather rare condition, it does occur and its effects can be swift and life threatening. Know the symptoms, if symptoms are present, act quickly, seek medical help immediately, and you just may help stop meningitis before it stops someone you love.

As with any health-related issue, consult with your family physician or healthcare provider regarding your family's specific medical issues.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—
Mayo Clinic—
National Meningitis Association—

Articles are provided for the general interest of our readers. Gerber Life Insurance is not responsible for any content and recommends that you consult the appropriate professional with any questions or concerns you may have concerning any financial or health related issues.

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