The brain and the spinal cord are surrounded by soft membranes to protect the inner tissues. Spinal meningitis occurs when these membranes get swollen due to some reason and develops inflammation. An important feature of meningitis is high fever with a stiff neck. Meningitis is caused by viral infection or fungal infection. The disease can be treated by medications and early intervention but sometimes it can be serious and life threatening.
Early signs of meningitis will be high fever or flu like symptoms. For this reason many people fail to recognize the disease leading to complications. Meningitis symptoms can develop within hours or few days depending on the intensity of infection.
Some of the important signs of spinal meningitis are:
- Stiffness in neck region
- High fever (occurs suddenly)
- Muscle spasm, joint pain and more intense pain in spine region
- Difficulty in concentrating or confusion of thoughts
- Extreme tiredness
- Severe headache/nausea/vomiting
- Trouble in getting quality sleep and difficulty in waking up
In some cases, the affected person may get sudden seizures or skin rashes and he becomes sensitive to light.Spinal meningitis may develop in infants and newborns also. If the infant develops sudden high fever accompanied with stiff neck then you must rush to the doctor immediately.
Some infants will have symptoms like excess of sleepiness, inactivity, trouble in feeding and constant crying with irritation. In some cases a soft bulging may appear on the baby’s head and it has great discomfort.When compared with bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis is better since the symptoms can improve even without treatment. Delay in taking treatment can cause complications or severe brain damage. In severe cases meningitis can cause death.
Meningitis can be caused by viral or bacterial infection. Bacterial infection is more serious and life threatening than viral infection.
Bacterial Infection :
Bacteria can enter the bloodstream through ear/sinus infection or sometimes it can directly attack the meninges (membranes that envelops the brain/spinal cord) causing infection. Streptococcus pneumoniae (which causes ear infection/throat infection), Neisseria meningitides (that cause respiratory infection), Haemophilus influenzae Type B and Listeria monocytogenes (present in hot dogs and cheese) are some of the bacterium that causes spinal meningitis.
Viral Meningitis :
Viral meningitis is often mild and symptoms can improve on their own. Enteroviruses are often responsible for causing spinal infection. Herpes simplex virus, West Nile virus and mumps are some of the viral infections that cause meningitis. Chronic meningitis can develop when the organisms invade the cerebrospinal fluid. Acute form of meningitis can develop suddenly but chronic form may take weeks together. In rare cases fungus can cause meningitis. Sometimes strong drug allergy, chemical reactions and other infectious diseases can cause spinal meningitis.
Who are at risk?
A child who skips his scheduled vaccine may develop meningitis in later ages. Infants and newborns are prone to bacterial infections at high rate. Individual living in community setting like that of military camps, dormitories, boarding schools or colleges have increased risk of developing contagious meningococcal meningitis. Pregnant women (with weakened immunity) have risk of developing listeriosis leading to meningitis.
In general, people with weakened immunity are vulnerable to many diseases including meningitis. Meningitis can cause various complications if not given proper treatment in time. Some of them may develop hearing loss, brain damage, learning disability, seizure and various other brain damage.
The doctor will look for the above symptoms and check for ear/nose/throat infections and skin rashes. Since the symptoms of meningitis are confusing it is difficult to detect spinal meningitis. He may order for blood profile to detect growth of micro-organisms, imaging tests (like X-ray, CT scan), and lumbar puncture. He would collect small amount of cerebrospinal fluid from the spine using spinal tap procedure and test it in the laboratory. Any abnormal increase in the WBC count can be due to meningitis. To diagnose viral meningitis your doctor may request for polymerase chain reaction test.
Firstly the doctor should make sure about the type of microorganisms that has caused meningitis. The treatment may vary depending on the infection the person/child has. Antibiotics are prescribed for treating bacterial meningitis. In severe infection, your doctor may give steroid medications (in high doses) and taper it slowly. The root cause of bacterial infection like ear infection or sinus should be treated.
Viral infections cannot be treated with antibiotics and the symptoms will improve within a week. Simple home remedies like drinking plenty of fluids and taking complete rest can give some relief. In severe cases, antiviral medications are prescribed. Antifungal drugs are given for meningitis caused by fungus.
Meningitis develops through infections and hence one should always practice good hygiene both at home and at workplace. Children should be instructed to wash the hands thoroughly before they eat and after using toilet. Avoid sharing foods and personal items with others. Cover your mouth while sneezing.
Vaccinations are available to prevent bacterial meningitis. Do not skip the doses of vaccination and follow instructions of your pediatrician for your children. Meningococcal conjugate vaccine is given in single dose for children of 11-12 years followed by booster shot at 16 years.