Meningitis, also called meningococcal disease or spinal meningitis, is inflammation of the thin tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord (called the meninges).
There are several types of meningitis. The most common is viral meningitis, which is contracted when a virus enters the body through the nose or mouth and travels to the brain. Bacterial meningitis is rare, but can be deadly. Initial symptoms usually resemble a cold. Bacterial meningitis can block blood vessels in the brain and lead to stroke and brain damage. It can also harm other organs. Left untreated, bacterial meningitis can be fatal.
For bacterial meningitis, it is also important to know which type of bacteria is causing the meningitis. Antibiotics can prevent some types from spreading and infecting other people. Before the 1990s, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis, but new vaccines being given to all children as part of their routine immunizations have reduced the occurrence of invasive disease due to H. influenzae. Today, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria meningititis are the leading causes of bacterial meningitis. Determining the bacteria causing meningitis is important in choosing the correct antibiotic treatment.
Anyone can get meningitis, but it is more common in individuals whose bodies have trouble fighting off infections and who have poor immune systems, such as those with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), cancer, the elderly, and the malnourished. Meningitis can progress rapidly.
Hallmark symptoms of meningitis include all of the following: a sudden fever; a severe headache; and a stiff neck. Individuals experiencing these symptoms should seek medical care.
In the past, the majority of meningitis cases occurred in children younger than five years. Due to the protection offered by current childhood vaccines, most meningitis cases now occur in young people between the ages of 15-24. The elderly also tend to have a higher incidence of meningitis than do young children due to poor immune health.
There are nearly 3,000 cases of meningitis every year in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 10-12% of the cases are fatal.
Early treatment can help prevent serious problems, including death. Vaccines can prevent some of the bacterial infections that cause meningitis. Parents of adolescents and students living in college dorms should talk to a doctor about the vaccination.
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