What is meningitis?
There are two types of meningitis:
Bacterial meningitis is a serious disease requiring immediate medical attention. Three microorganisms are the cause of the disease. They are naturally present in the pharynx, where they are commensal, or “friendly”, bacteria. The disease can progress very quickly. This happens when these microorganisms invade the blood stream. Bacterial meningitis is spread through respiratory secretions, for example when we cough or kiss. People sharing a home are likely to be infected.
- Infectious or viral meningitis is caused by bacteria or a virus. It is the most common type of meningitis and is less serious than bacterial meningitis. The viruses most commonly associated with this disease in our environment are enteroviruses: herpes simplex type 1 and 2, the varicella zoster virus and the mumps virus. The evolution of viral meningitis is acute, benign and usually there are no lasting effects.
The most common symptoms are:
- sudden onset of high fever
- intense headache
- pain when moving the neck
Meningitis may also include nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to bright light, drowsiness, falling into a coma or convulsions.
The first symptoms of bacterial and viral meningitis are similar. However, bacterial meningitis is generally severe and can cause serious complications such as brain damage or learning difficulties.
In bacterial meningitis, the bacteria in the blood can give rise to another serious disease, septicaemia, which is the body’s generalized reaction to infection and which may have various consequences such as:
- changes to arterial pressure
- changes to clotting of the blood
- tissue damage
- multiple organ failure
In the most serious cases it can be fatal. In this case, the appearance of small spots on the skin is cause for alarm.
Who does meningitis affect?
Bacterial meningitis can be contracted by any age group but the elderly and young children are most at risk. In the last twenty years its epidemiology has changed significantly with the introduction of new vaccines linked to child vaccination programmes.
Whilst meningococcus is the main cause of bacterial meningitis around the world, in Spain meningococcal disease is not endemic, with an annual rate of fewer than 5 cases for every 100,000 people. Meningococcal meningitis may lead to death in 3-15 % of cases.
Many of the viruses that cause the disease are present worldwide and others are specific to particular regions.
If meningitis is suspected, blood and cerebrospinal fluid (the liquid around the spinal cord and brain) samples will be analysed. Cerebrospinal fluid is obtained via lumbar puncture. Analysis will help confirm the disease and will identify the microorganism causing it.
Most cases of infectious or viral meningitis improve without treatment in 7-10 days. However, it is very important that people with symptoms of meningitis receive immediate medical care to make a correct diagnosis of the disease, to determine the type of meningitis and to receive the right treatment.
In the case of bacterial meningitis, antibiotic treatment must be administered intravenously as soon as possible. Anti-inflammatories may also be used to treat any complications that may arise.
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