From Meningitis Symptoms to Treatment: All You Need to Know

April 07, 2021

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges. The meninges refer to delicate, protective coverings of the brain and spinal cord. Often, the cause of meningitis is a bacterial or viral infection. Meningitis is a rare disease, and it is quite possible for you to have a virus or bacteria that causes meningitis and yet not have the disease. That being said, bacterial meningitis is a very serious disease and can be fatal. Viral meningitis is more common and usually less serious than bacterial meningitis.

Classic meningitis symptoms include headache, fever, neck stiffness, and confusion. However, infants may display other signs, such as lethargy and poor eating. There are treatments for meningitis and even vaccines that can help against certain forms of the disease. Nevertheless, it is important to first diagnose the type of meningitis for proper treatment. Viral meningitis may pass off without any specific treatment.

Meningitis frequently spreads through contact and airborne droplets and simple habits like covering the mouth while sneezing and not sharing forks and spoons and curb the spread of the disease. Medical diagnosis is important to identifying the disease and depending on the type of meningitis you will be recommended hospitalization. In India, there are fewer than 1 million cases of meningitis each year.

Now that you have a brief overview of meningitis, proceed to understand more about the causes, symptoms, treatment, diagnosis, and prevention of meningitis.

Causes of Meningitis

The most common meningitis causes are bacterial or viral infections. The infection may develop in another part of the body but spreads and infects the meninges of the brain or spinal cord. Viral meningitis is the most common form of meningitis. Nevertheless, it is important to know that meningitis caused by bacteria is serious, even life-threatening. Hence, proper identification of meningitis, bacterial, viral, or due to another cause, is crucial to correct and timely treatment.

The causes of meningitis can be said to be:

  • Viral
  • Bacterial
  • Fungal
  • Parasitic
  • Amoebic
  • Non-infectious

In the non-infectious category fall cancer, head injury, lupus, sarcoidosis, and certain drugs. When it comes to bacterial meningitis, the cause may differ as per the patient’s age group. Meningitis for babies may often boil down to group B streptococci or E. Coli (carrying K1 antigen). In terms of chronic meningitis, tuberculosis is the most common cause and here, it is again the work of a bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Signs of Meningitis

Some of the most common meningitis signs and symptoms include headaches, high fever, stiff neck, and photophobia, which is sensitivity to light. Nevertheless, since early diagnosis is important to timely treatment and can even be lifesaving, it is helpful to categorize the different meningitis symptoms based on their cause.

Below are cause-wise symptoms of meningitis:

  1. Viral meningitis

Meningitis symptoms in babies

  • Poor appetite
  • Sleepiness
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Lack of energy

Meningitis symptoms in adults and children

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Photophobia
  • Sleepiness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of energy
  • Seizures
  • Sleepiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Poor appetite

2. Bacterial meningitis

The main meningitis symptoms to note here are:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck

Other known meningitis symptoms that may show up are:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Photophobia
  • Confusion or altered mental status
  • Meningitis rash

This being said, meningitis symptoms in babies and newborns may not include the ones listed above but may come in the form of:

  • Poor appetite
  • Irritability
  • Inactiveness
  • Vomiting
  • Abnormal reflexes
  • Bulging fontanelle

3. Fungal meningitis

The common meningitis symptoms associated with fungal meningitis are:

  • Fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Headache
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Photophobia
  • Confusion or altered mental status

4. Parasitic meningitis

Parasitic meningitis symptoms are similar to those of fungal meningitis. That is, they include:

  • Fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Headache
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Photophobia
  • Confusion or altered mental status

However, parasitic meningitis symptoms may also include:

  • Loss of muscle control
  • Coma
  • Paralysis
  • Permanent disability
  • Death

Diagnosis of Meningitis

Since meningitis can be fatal, it is important for doctors to diagnose the condition as early as possible. This is key to prompt meningitis treatment. Diagnosis of meningitis normally starts with:

  • Medical history evaluation
  • Physical exam
  • Travel history evaluation

Your doctor would also need to carry out certain tests to arrive at a diagnosis. These include:

  • Blood tests
  • Lumbar puncture/ spinal tap
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • Chest X-ray
  • Stool sample
  • Throat/ nose swab

Treatment of Meningitis

Meningitis treatment depends on the type of meningitis you are diagnosed with.

Bacterial meningitis requires that you be treated with antibiotics. Since bacterial meningitis can be fatal, the value of starting treatment as soon as possible cannot be overemphasised. This is vital to preventing brain damage and hospitalization is required for treatment. The antibiotics will be administered intravenously.  Bacterial meningitis can be caused due to several different types of bacteria and so, to start off with, your doctor may prescribe a broad-spectrum antibiotic before zeroing in on a more specific drug.

Viral meningitis should resolve on its own and within a weeks’ time or more you should recover from the disease. Antibiotics are not of help in treating viral meningitis. Rather, your doctor may shift the focus to you remaining healthy through adequate rest, fluid intake, and OTC medication. In case the viral meningitis is caused by herpes or influenza, you may be required to take antiviral medication, which will be administered intravenously.

Fungal meningitis is treated with antifungal medication. These may be given intravenously at first and later ingested orally. The type of medication, course, and dosage depends on the fungus in question and also the person’s immune system.

Parasitic meningitis could lead your doctor to simply treat the symptoms. For instance, he or she may prescribe pain medication for a meningitis headache. At times, the doctor will attempt to treat the infection itself and, here, antibiotic treatment can be of help.

Risk factors for Meningitis

Meningitis is a disease that anyone can get. However, it is more commonly found in certain age groups and certain people may be more at risk. Meningitis risk factors include you being:

  • Below the age of 5
  • Between the age of 16 and 25
  • Over the age of 55
  • With an immune deficiency such as HIV/AIDS
  • With a medical condition such as a chronic heart condition
  • In the vicinity of an outbreak
  • In an area in the world where meningitis is more common
  • Pregnant
  • A tobacco smoker

Prevention of Meningitis

Despite how deadly meningitis can be its prevention can lie in basic good habits like covering your mouth when sneezing. Much of meningitis prevention centres around avoiding meningitis-causing bacteria or viruses.

Here are some simple things you can implement to prevent the spread of meningitis:

  • Rinse/ wash hands regularly
  • Avoid sharing food with others
  • Avoid sharing lipstick and utensils
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • Get adequate rest and exercise
  • Eat healthy and drink plenty of fluids
  • Avoid smoking
  • Avoid people who have the disease

Vaccines have also been developed to fight certain types of meningitis. There is more than one meningitis vaccine in the market at present and the focus is to prevent bacterial meningitis as this is deadly.

Vaccines against meningitis available include:

  • Meningococcal vaccine
  • Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine
  • Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) vaccine

Menactra® from Sanofi Pasteur is an example of a licensed meningitis vaccine in India.

Transmission of Meningitis

When trying to prevent meningitis, it is important to know how to curb its spread. Meningitis transmission occurs if the cause is a bacterium or a virus. Fungal, parasitic, and non-infectious meningitis are not contagious. However, you can get parasitic meningitis by ingesting contaminated water.

Viral meningitis can spread from one person to another. The virus can be transmitted through coughing or sneezing and direct contact with an infected person increases the risk of you getting the virus. However, it is not the case that all who get the virus go on to develop meningitis. Rather, most people will not develop meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis can also spread from person to person, and this is how the transmission normally occurs. Long, close contact with an infected person increases the risk of meningitis transmission. Food is also an agent that can carry the bacteria. Experts note that meningococcal bacteria will not survive for long outside the body. Hence, the risk of getting the disease from an infected person just by being near that person is low.

As you can see a disease like meningitis requires the guidance of a doctor. Meningitis symptoms generally develop a week after exposure and delays in diagnosis can be very detrimental. Hence, it makes sense to have healthcare options at your fingertips, and with the Bajaj Finserv Health App you have just that!

You can use it to search for relevant doctors who treat meningitis and connect with them for an expert opinion. The app supports telemedicine, meaning that you can consult a doctor via video for a quick opinion if a physical visit is not possible at the time. Since time is of the essence with meningitis, you may want to use this feature. The app also allows you to book appointments at clinics online, safely store and share your medical records, set medicine reminders, and more. To get the app today, download it for free from Google Play or the Apple App Store.