Meningitis: Warning Signs and What to Do
Meningitis is a serious illness that may lead to death. It is caused by infection of the layers or sheets covering and protecting your brain. These layers of tissue are known as the meninges and their function is to protect your brain and spinal cord. Viruses or bacteria invade these layers surrounding your brain leading to meningitis.
Meningitis Caused by Viruses
Viruses are tiny bugs which you can’t see with your naked eyes but with the help of a machine (microscope). These tiny organisms are the commonest cause of meningitis in you. However you may only suffer a mild meningitis illness if the cause is virus as compared to bacteria. You may not need any specific treatment when you have viral meningitis: only general support. Viruses that cause poliomyelitis, mumps, flu and HIV may also cause you meningitis.
Meningitis Caused by Bacteria
You may also suffer from meningitis caused by bacteria (tiny germs that cause diseases). The bacteria that may cause you meningitis include E. coli, H. influenzae, Meningococcus and S. pneumoniae.
Meningococcus cause meningitis to about half a million people all over the world each year. And about 10 per cent of these people lose their lives. Your risk of catching meningitis increases when an epidemic occurs because it spreads very fast to affect hundreds of thousands of people. Your risk of suffering from meningitis also increases during an outbreak in a refugee camp or school if you belong to these group of people. Sometimes the disease only affects one or two people sporadically in different locations.
Your infant (child below one year of age) is easily affected by meningitis because their immunity is weak. If you are an adolescent or young adult you may also catch meningitis easily because you are more exposed to the dangers of catching the disease through your social behaviours.
African Meningitis Belt
If you live in one of 26 countries between Senegal and Ethiopia within sub- Saharan Africa then you are in the ‘African Meningitis Belt’. This area has the highest rate of meningitis infection therefore you have the highest chance of getting meningitis. Epidemics of meningitis occur again and again in this region where up to 430 million people live.
How Meningitis Spreads From One Person to Another
Your nose and throat may contain the bacteria that cause meningitis without causing any harm to you. Bacteria reach the coverings of your brain through your veins carried by the blood flow. Also a fracture on your skull provides an opportunity for bacteria to move directly through the cracks to invade the meninges. Also infection in your ear gives bacteria easy access to your brain region due to closeness of your ear to the brain.
When you cough or sneeze you throw out the bacteria living in your nose or throat. If you live in overcrowded quarters you easily pass the germs to other persons because you breathe near each other. The bacteria then enter their blood vessels within the nose or throat and are transported to the brain.
What Increases Your Chance of Getting Meningitis?
- When you live in overcrowded quarters with little or no ventilation you have higher chances of getting meningitis.
- If you find yourself in hot and dry climate conditions you can easily catch meningitis. This is because this type of climate lead to damage of the lining in your nose and throat. It also spreads germs through dusty winds. This situation increases the risk of infection with meningococcus.
- Also infection in your ears and sinuses provide opportunity for the bacteria to move directly into your skull to invade the meninges.
- Pneumonia (an infection of your lungs) helps bacteria to cross into your blood flow and get transported to the brain.
- If you are suffering from some medical conditions such as diabetes, pregnancy, HIV and others your body’s immunity becomes weak. Low body’s immunity makes it easy for all types of germs to invade and cause illness.
- When you have close contact with a person having meningitis you have higher chances of getting infected with the disease. Close contact include kissing, eating or drinking with the same utensils with an individual carrying the infection.
Symptoms and Signs of Meningitis
Commonly your neck becomes stiff, and you may have high grade fever, headache, vomiting as well as confusion. Also you may feel very sensitive or uncomfortable in light. If the illness become serious you may fall into coma (deep unconsciousness) and lose function of some parts of your body. Between 5 to 10 per cent of affected people die even if the disease was detected early and treatment started.
Complications of meningitis include: deafness (loss of hearing); collection of fluid in the brain; paralysis in some parts of the face and neck due to damage to some nerves; damage to some parts of the brain.
Treatment of Meningitis
Meningitis is an emergency medical problem that needs to be urgently treated in the hospital. If you did not treat it you have very high chances of loosing your life.Up to 80 per cent of affected people will die if not treated. You should be given antibiotic drugs through your veins immediately if your doctor suspects bacterial meningitis. Your blood and cerebrospinal fluid (fluid inside your spinal cord) will be sent to the lab for test. Also a CT scan of your brain will be done to ensure there are no other problems in the brain.
How to Prevent Meningitis
- You should ensure to receive vaccination against meningitis. This is because it gives you the best protection against meningitis. 3 types of vaccines are available.
- Also you should avoid living in closed and overcrowded quarters.
- Make sure you avoid close contact with a person suffering from respiratory tract infection.
- You must seek treatment early when you suffer from ear infection, sinusitis or pneumonia. This will reduce your chances of getting the disease.
- Also wash your hands frequently as this will reduce contamination from your hands getting into your respiratory tract.
- Ensure that you rush to the hospital as soon as you started feeling sick as this will help detect the disease early.
(You can find an awesome collection of healthcare products that you can use to protect yourself from infections right here).
Kasper, D. L. et al. eds. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. 19th ed. McGraw Hill. USA.
Walker, B. R., Colledge, N. R., Ralston, S. H. & Penman, I. D. (eds)(2014) Davidson’s Principles and Practice of Medicine. 22nd ed. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier. London
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