Meningococcal Meningitis

The brain and spinal cord are covered by membranes called meninges. They help keep the brain and spinal cord safe from injury. However, germs such as bacteria and viruses can infect the meninges. This causes swelling and irritation. Meningitis is the medical term for inflammation of the meninges. One type of bacteria that can cause meningitis is meningococcus. Meningococcal meningitis is inflammation of the meninges caused by this bacteria.

Meningococcal meningitis can occur at any age. However, children and young adults get it most often. It usually develops in the winter and spring. It can spread easily from person to person (contagious). It can spread through coughing, sneezing, kissing, or sharing a drinking glass. Having meningococcal meningitis is very serious. It is a medical emergency. It can be life-threatening if it is not treated quickly.

CAUSES

Many people may carry the meningococcus bacteria in the nose or throat at any time. It is not well known why a person who carries the bacteria may or may not get the invasive meningococcal meningitis infection.

SYMPTOMS

Signs and symptoms of meningococcal meningitis may start suddenly. They can include:

  • High fever.

  • Stiff neck.

  • Being bothered by light.

  • Headache.

  • Being confused.

  • Vomiting.

  • Red spots or purple blotches on the skin. These may look like tiny pinpoints.

In babies, symptoms may also include:

  • Restlessness.

  • Poor feeding.

  • Sleepiness.

  • A bulging soft spot (fontanelle) on the baby's head.

DIAGNOSIS

Your caregiver considers this disease based on your symptoms. The typical early symptoms include fever, headache, and stiffness of the neck. To confirm the diagnosis, the following tests are done:

  • Spinal tap. A needle is used to take a sample of the fluid around the spinal cord. The fluid is sent to a lab to be examined under a microscope and to do a culture test. These are the most important tests for making a diagnosis. These tests also help your caregiver decide how to best treat the infection.

  • Blood tests. A complete blood count and a culture of the blood are also typically performed.

TREATMENT

Meningococcal meningitis needs to be treated in a hospital. It is an emergency condition.

  • Antibiotics will be given right away. This may be done before results are known from a spinal tap and blood tests. This is done to attack the infection as quickly as possible. An intravenous line (IV) may be used to give the medicine. This is the fastest way to get the medicine into the body.

  • Different medicines may be used over the course of treatment. At first, IV antibiotics may include penicillin and ceftriaxone. Later, the medicines may be changed or other drugs may be added. This will depend on your test results. Sometimes, steroids are used to help decrease swelling. Steroids can also help prevent problems such as hearing loss and seizures. IV antibiotics are typically needed for about 1 week.

PREVENTION

The meningococcus bacteria can be spread from person to person by close contact. Because of this, family members and other close contacts (day-care and school contacts) of the patient are typically advised to seek medical care and receive an antibiotic that will lessen their chance of developing this serious infection. This infection is also reported to your local health department. The health department helps make sure that contacts are notified and treatment is advised.

In the United States, routine vaccination is advised for some people who are at higher than normal risk of getting this disease. This includes students before entering college, people who have lost their spleens because of accidents, surgery, or sickle cell anemia, and people with certain other rare diseases.

HOME CARE INSTRUCTIONS

  • Take any medicines prescribed by your caregiver. Take your antibiotics as directed. Finish them even if you start to feel better.

  • Family members or other people who are in close contact with the patient may also need to take antibiotics. Follow your caregiver's instructions.

  • Go back to normal activities slowly.

  • Wash your hands often to avoid spreading the infection. Stay away from other people as much as possible until you are better.

  • Keep all follow-up appointments. This is how your caregiver can make sure your treatment is working.

SEEK IMMEDIATE MEDICAL CARE IF:

  • You have trouble hearing.

  • You have seizures.

  • You become irritable.

  • You have difficulty eating.

  • You have breathing problems.

  • You are confused.

  • You are more sleepy than usual.

  • You have a fever.

MAKE SURE YOU:

  • Understand these instructions.

  • Will watch your condition.

  • Will get help right away if you are not doing well or get worse.