What Is Bacterial Meningitis?
Bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency and must be treated promptly. It can be fatal, and in some cases, people can die very quickly after infection. One in 10 cases of bacterial meningitis is fatal, and one of every seven survivors suffers from permanent and severe disability, such as deafness or brain injury.
The survival rate for bacterial meningitis is lowest in the first year of life, increases in midlife, and decreases again in old age.
What Are Symptoms of Bacterial Meningitis?
Symptoms of bacterial meningitis may include a sudden onset of:
- Stiff neck
- Altered mental status (confusion)
- Eye sensitivity to light (photophobia)
- Rash: red or purple spots on the skin that do not go away when touched
Other symptoms of bacterial meningitis include:
Symptoms of bacterial meningitis in newborns and babies may include:
- Inactivity or slow movement
- Sleepiness or trouble waking up from sleep
- Being more fussy than usual
- Poor feeding
- Bulging fontanelle (soft spot on an infant’s head)
- Abnormal reflexes
How Do You Get Bacterial Meningitis?
Common bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis in the United States include:
- Group B Streptococcus
- Streptococcus pneumoniae
- Listeria monocytogenes
- Escherichia coli
- E. coli
- Neisseria meningitidis
- Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
The bacterium that causes tuberculosis (TB), Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is a less common cause of bacterial meningitis, called TB meningitis.
Some bacteria are more likely to affect certain age groups:
- Newborns: Group B Streptococcus, S. pneumoniae, L. monocytogenes, E. coli
- Babies and young children: S. pneumoniae, N. meningitidis, H. influenzae, group B Streptococcus, M. tuberculosis
- Teens and young adults: N. meningitidis, S. pneumoniae
- Older adults: S. pneumoniae, N. meningitidis, H. influenzae, group B Streptococcus, L. monocytogenes
How Is Bacterial Meningitis Diagnosed?
In addition to a patient’s history (which may include a travel history) and physical examination, if meningitis is suspected, testing to diagnose the illness may include:
- Cerebrospinal fluid tests
- Blood tests
- Nose or throat swabs
- Stool sample testing
- Brain scan
What Is the Treatment for Bacterial Meningitis?
Treatment for bacterial meningitis involves antibiotics. The choice of antibiotic depends on the infectious agent and the age of the patient.
How Do You Prevent Bacterial Meningitis?
To prevent some forms of bacterial meningitis:
- Get vaccines on schedule
- Meningococcal vaccines to help protect against N. meningitidis
- Pneumococcal vaccines to help protect against S. pneumoniae
- Hib vaccines to help protect against Hib
- Bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine to help protect against tuberculosis disease (not widely used in the U.S.)
- As with any vaccine, these vaccines do not work 100% of the time and they do not protect against infections from all the types (strains) of each of these bacteria
- Pregnant women who test positive for group B Streptococcus when they are 36-37 weeks pregnant can receive antibiotics during labor to prevent passing group B strep to their newborns
- Pregnant women can reduce their risk of meningitis caused by L. monocytogenes by avoiding certain foods during pregnancy such as soft cheeses, celery, sprouts, cantaloupe, and ice cream
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