How to Protect Yourself From Meningitis
This potentially fatal disease has been cropping up all over the country, especially in places where people congregate or live in close proximity to each other (college dormitories and military barracks).
What causes a meningitis outbreak and how can you protect yourself and your family?
Meningitis is a disease that causes inflammation or swelling of the meninges, the protective lining that covers the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can be caused by injury and viral or bacterial infections. Most cases are viral meningitis caused by enterovirus (which also infects the intestines) and is spread person-to-person through contact with unwashed hands or surfaces. Viral meningitis is less severe than bacterial meningitis and most people recover from it within a week or two.
Bacterial meningitis is a serious and potentially fatal illness that is always a medical emergency. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that about 4,100 people get bacterial meningitis every year and 500 people die from it. It often flares up in clusters of patients in specific locations like schools, places of employment, or churches. Children and young adults are particularly vulnerable to bacterial meningitis and outbreaks sometimes occur in settings where they spend time or live together, like college dormitories.
Meningitis infections can be caused by a variety of bacterium. The CDC breaks down common causes by age group:
- Newborns—Group B Streptococcus, Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes
- Infants—Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, Haemophilus influenzae type b
- Adolescents and Young Adults—Neisseria meningitidis, Streptococcus pneumoniae
- Older Adults—Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, Listeria monocytogenes
Risk Factors for Meningitis
Infants are at the highest risk for contracting meningitis, but anyone can get it. People with compromised immune symptoms, world travelers, and healthcare professionals are also at increased risk.
Symptoms of Meningitis
Telltale signs of meningitis include quick onset of a severe headache, stiff neck, and fever. Patients may also experience nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, and even mental confusion. Symptoms sometimes come on suddenly or over the course of three to seven days after exposure.
If caught early enough, bacterial meningitis can be treated successfully with antibiotics. Patients are often hospitalized to reduce the spread of the disease. They undergo aggressive antibiotic treatment to increase chance for survival.
How You Can Prevent Meningitis
Vaccination is the best method for reducing the risk of contracting meningitis. There are vaccines for three types of bacteria that cause meningitis. Many daycare settings and schools require such vaccinations before allowing students to enroll in, or attend, classes.
For people who live near, or with patients, who've contracted meningitis, doctors may prescribe preventative antibiotics. The CDC also advises people can minimize risks for contracting the disease by staying healthy, avoiding cigarette smoke, getting enough sleep, and avoiding others who are sick.
If you or someone you know has symptoms of meningitis, seek medical care immediately. The sooner the disease is diagnosed and treated, the greater chance the disease will be cured and less chance of it spreading to others.
Centers for Disease Control. "Meningitis" Web. 13 Nov. 2012
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