Getting the news that your child's classmate or friend
has meningitis can be an alarming experience for parents. However, knowing more
about the disease can help parents recognize the signs and symptoms of meningitis
as well as help differentiate between various types of the disease, says Chris
Nelson, M.D., pediatric infectious disease specialist and assistant professor
of pediatrics at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.
Meningitis is an infection of the "meninges,"
the fine membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. This infection is most
commonly caused by either a bacterium or a virus. Although many people harbor
various bacteria and viruses in their throat and nasal passages without ill
effects, it is unknown why this infection sometimes becomes invasive and enters
the bloodstream, making its way to the meninges, Nelson says.
Viral meningitis in most cases is a benign
disease with much less serious consequences and permanent damage than bacterial
meningitis. Viral meningitis is more common in the summer months and is spread
by hand-to-mouth contact. The majority of symptoms disappear within three to
four days with no residual complications.
"If you or a family member has been in
contact with someone who is diagnosed with viral meningitis, do not panic but
instead monitor for signs of the disease," Nelson says. "Unless they
have symptoms, there's no need to go to the doctor's office or emergency room."
Bacterial meningitis is a much more serious
infection and the need for early diagnosis and treatment is essential for the
best outcomes, Nelson says.
Symptoms for both forms of meningitis are high
fever, headache, and stiff neck but may also include nausea, vomiting, discomfort
looking into bright lights, confusion, hallucinations, and seizures.
While the germs that cause bacterial meningitis
may be spread from person to person, they are not spread by casual contact or
simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been, Nelson says.
"The bacteria are spread through the
exchange of respiratory and throat secretions through kissing and drinking from
the same glass," he says. "Oftentimes, there is a real panic with
bacterial meningitis… only those who have been in very close contact with the
infected person are at risk."
If bacterial meningitis is suspected, the patient
should seek care immediately. The diagnosis is generally confirmed through a
lumbar puncture to test for bacteria. The patient is then treated with antibiotics.
If not treated early, the disease can result
in death, and in many cases cause brain injuries, hearing loss, or learning
"If you or a family member has had close
contact with someone who has bacterial meningitis, call your family physician
or local health department to get more information," Nelson suggests.