The brain and spinal cord are covered by layers of tissue. These layers are called the meninges. Certain bacteria can cause an infection in these layers. This is called bacterial meningitis.
It is a serious infection that causes inflammation of the brain and spinal tissue. Bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment. Depending on the severity of the infection, it can result in death within hours.
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Bacterial meningitis is caused by many different bacteria and varies by age group. The most common are pneumococcal meningitis, meningococcal meningitis, and Hemophilus influenza B meningitis. The brain and spinal cord are protected from the bloodstream by the blood-brain barrier. Under certain circumstances bacteria in the bloodstream can travel through the blood-brain barrier into the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord causing meningitis. Severity of the infection depends on the bacteria causing it.
Transmission of the bacteria usually occurs by direct contact with oral or respiratory secretions, such as inhaling droplets from someone who sneezes or coughs, or by kissing. The spread of the bacteria depends on the time of the year, crowding, and the presence other respiratory infections.
Bacterial meningitis is more common in infancy and childhood. For adults the risk increases as you age. Other factors that increase your chance of getting bacterial meningitis include:
congenital dura defects such as dermal sinus or meningomyelocele
Classic symptoms can develop over several hours or may take one to two days:
Other symptoms may include:
In newborns and infants, symptoms are hard to see. As a result, infants under three months old with a fever are often checked for meningitis. Symptoms in newborns and infants may include:
Complications of bacterial meningitis include:
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Tests may include the following:
More than 90% of all people with this infection survive with immediate care, including:
Antibiotics are given through an IV. This is started as soon as the infection is suspected. The antibiotics may be changed once tests find the exact bacterial cause. Patients usually stay in the hospital until the fever has fallen and the fluid around the spine and the brain is clear of infection. This may require a hospital stay of several days.
These are usually given by IV early in treatment. but only for those caused by the Hemophilus influenza B or pneumococcal virus. They control brain pressure and swelling. They also reduce the body’s production of inflammatory substances. This treatment can prevent further damage. Specifically it reduces the risk of hearing loss and neurological complications.
Fluids can be lost due to fever, sweating, or vomiting. They may be replaced through an IV. It will be done carefully to avoid complications of fluid overloading.
Your doctor may also recommend:
To help reduce your chance of getting bacterial meningitis, take these steps:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Meningitis Foundation of American
Meningitis Research Foundation of Canada
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Last reviewed July 2013 by Marcin Chwistek, MD; Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 5/11/2013
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