The meninges are membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Any inflammation of the meninges is termed meningitis. Usually meningitis is caused by an infection, which can be either viral (aseptic) or bacterial in nature. Although viral meningitis is more common, and resolves within a few weeks, bacterial meningitis is a life-threatening emergency. Mortality rates for bacterial meningitis can be as high as twenty percent. There is an excellent vaccine available for the prevention of several commons causes of meningitis, which is recommended for children beginning at 6 months of age.
Meningitis in children or adults is characterized by a severe headache, with vomiting or nausea, and a stiff neck in which the person is unable to touch the chin to the chest. Further symptoms include a rash, confusion, difficulty concentrating, sleepiness, and sensitivity to light. Symptoms may develop over several days, or may develop in as little as 24 hours.
People who live in group settings, such as dormitories or military barracks, are at much greater risk of developing meningitis. Also, those with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to developing the disease. For these individuals, immunization is highly recommended.
The treatment for meningitis depends on the organism causing the disease. Diagnosis is generally made through a lumbar puncture, in which a small amount of the fluid surrounding the meninges is removed by the insertion of a needle into the spinal column. If the meningitis is caused by a virus, antibiotics are ineffective. Treatment of viral meningitis generally includes bed rest, lots of fluids and over the counter anti-inflammatory pain medications.
Because bacterial meningitis is a much more serious condition, timely hospitalization and antibiotics are required. It is important that treatment begin quickly, and it is essential that medical personnel identify the organism causing the meningitis as quickly as possible, as death can result within a short time from the onset of symptoms. Because bacterial meningitis is such a severe condition, medical personnel must treat any individuals presenting with symptoms of meningitis even before a lumbar puncture is performed. Failure of medical personnel to begin treatment immediately for bacterial meningitis can have disastrous consequences, including seizures and death. However, if the condition is identified and treated quickly, most people clear the infection and recover with time.