Bacterial meningitis is a serious infection that can lead to death in some cases. How can you protect against it?
Meningitis in a few words
The root of the word “meningitis” comes from the Greek expression “meninx” or meninges, and the suffix “itis” means inflammation. What are meninges exactly?
Meninges are a set of membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The brain is protected by bones (the skull), meninges and cushioned by cerebrospinal fluid. By definition, meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, most often caused by a bacterial or viral infection. In general, viral meningitis is less severe than bacterial meningitis.
The causes of meningitis
Bacterial meningitis is most often caused by the Neisseria meningitidis serogroup B bacterium. In recent years, it has been responsible for 50% to 62% of invasive meningococcal disease cases in Canada. Four other strains of this bacterium (A, C, W135 and Y) can be blamed for the majority of other cases.
The disease is most often spread through prolonged or close contact (such as kissing), especially between people living in the same household. Transmission can also occur through the sharing of objects (e.g. straws, utensils) or through droplets projected into the air due to coughing or sneezing.
Although people of all ages can develop meningitis, children under the age of 4, adolescents and young adults (between the ages of 15 and 25) are most at risk. This is partly because these populations are more likely to maintain very close contact with each other. There is also an increased risk among the elderly.
Other risk factors include:
- underlying infection (e.g., otitis or sinusitis)
- travel to a high-risk area (e.g.: sub-Saharan Africa)
- immune system deficiency (e.g., individuals without a spleen or who have HIV or diabetes)
- head trauma, and
- cochlear implants
The symptoms of meningitis
It is important to know how to recognize the symptoms of meningitis, as early diagnosis increases the chances of recovery. Initial symptoms may be similar to those of the flu or another type of infection, for example:
- fever (often sudden onset)
- neck stiffness, and
- nausea and vomiting
Typically, symptoms may initially be mild and subtle. However, they can get worse very quickly. More rarely, a person may have cold hands and feet, rapid breathing, convulsions and skin discolouration (dark purple).
If these or any other unusual symptoms occur, do not delay in seeking medical attention for a prompt diagnosis. This is a medical emergency that requires early treatment. Each year in Canada, bacterial meningitis causes deaths.
The complications of meningitis
Although most people with bacterial meningitis recover, up to 1 in 10 cases can be fatal, often within 24 to 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. However, some individuals who do recover develop complications and remain with after-effects.
Possible complications include scarring of the skin, deafness, brain damage, developmental delays and learning disabilities, muscle paralysis, limb amputation, kidney problems and epilepsy.
Deaths are often due to blood poisoning (sepsis) secondary to the infection.
How is meningitis treated?
The treatment of bacterial meningitis relies primarily on intravenous antibiotic therapy. This is absolutely necessary to stop the infection. Hospitalization is necessary to ensure proper care of the patient.
At the hospital, the sick person will probably receive other medications or I.V. solutions to improve their condition and control symptoms such as fever, pain, dehydration, bleeding, changes in blood pressure, etc. Several other measures can be used, such as raising the head of the bed.
When meningitis is caused by a virus, antibiotics are of no use. The person will then be offered supportive treatments, but there is no medication available to treat a viral infection. It is necessary to wait for the immune system to fight it.
Prevention of meningitis?
Since bacterial meningitis is a contagious infection, it is important that those around the infected person protect themselves using effective sanitary measures: wash their hands very often, restrict contact (e.g., kissing) and avoid sharing objects such as utensils, glasses, cups, straws, etc. These preventive measures should be maintained until it is known that the person is no longer considered contagious.
Fortunately, there are vaccines available to develop immunity (protection) against invasive meningococcal disease. This is the best way to protect yourself or your child from this serious infection. Vaccinations are part of the regular vaccination schedule for children and adolescents in Quebec and other provinces. Additionally, some meningococcal vaccines can be prescribed and even received in pharmacies.
Speak to your pharmacist if you think you or someone close to you could benefit from vaccination. This service is provided in certain branch-stores affiliated to the Jean Coutu network. To find a branch-store offering this service, click here.
Don’t hesitate to speak to your pharmacist for additional information about meningitis.