Meningitis is a potentially fatal infection. Symptoms of meningitis in adults are often different than meningitis symptoms in children.
Meningitis is a disease caused by inflammation in the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorizes meningitis infections into five types.
Bacterial meningitis is one of the most dangerous forms of meningitis. It can be spread through close personal contact, including coughing, sneezing, and kissing. In the United States, according to the CDC, it affects approximately 4,000 people every year, and around 500 of these cases are fatal. Many others end with permanent complications, such as stroke, hearing loss, and brain damage. Bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics.
Viral meningitis is often less severe than bacterial meningitis, and most people will recover on their own within seven to 10 days. Many viruses can cause this form of meningitis, including the measles, mumps, and influenza viruses.
Fungal meningitis occurs when a fungus invades the tissue around your spinal cord. It is most common in parts of Africa, though in 2012 there was an outbreak of fungal meningitis in the United States due to contaminated steroids that were used in hospital around the country.
Some cases of meningitis are caused by parasites. These infections usually occur when people are traveling and ingest meat, produce, or seafood contaminated with animal feces. A certain parasitic meningitis is caused by an amoeba that lives in warm freshwater. The fifth type of meningitis is non-infectious. It is caused by some cancers, lupus, head injury, brain injury, or exposure to certain drugs.
Parasitic, fungal, and non-infectious meningitis are not spread from person to person. All three can lead to stroke, coma, heart failure, or death.
No matter how an infection is caused, the symptoms of meningitis in adults are often very similar.
Symptoms of meningitis in adults
The initial symptoms of meningitis in adults are often flu-like, including fever, headache, neck stiffness, and confusion. A study of 696 adults with meningitis found that nearly all patients have at least two of these four symptoms. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, irritability, and a sensitivity to light.
Some severe forms of bacterial meningitis can cause kidney failure or shock. Viral meningitis can also cause sleepiness or trouble waking up from sleep, lack of appetite, and a lack of energy. Signs of parasitic meningitis can include loss of balance, lack of attention to your surroundings, hallucinations, tingling in the skin, and seizures.
Some research has found that symptoms of meningitis in adults over age 65 may be slightly different than those of younger adults. Elderly patients with meningitis are more likely to experience confusion and trouble focusing while being less likely to experience neck stiffness and headache. Other research has found that elderly adults with meningitis are more likely to experience fever and loss of consciousness than younger adults.
Because different forms of meningitis have similar symptoms, it is impossible to know which type you have without proper testing. Meningitis often progresses rapidly after symptoms appear, so it is important to seek medical care right away.
Symptoms of meningitis in children
Symptoms of meningitis in children can be different than those in adults.
The typical symptoms of headache or neck stiffness may be difficult to diagnose, particularly in young children and babies. Instead, symptoms of meningitis in children usually include fever, lethargy, vomiting, irritability, poor eating, and excessive sleepiness. Babies may have trouble waking up, even for eating, and lack alertness. They may also show bulging or fullness in the soft spot on top of their head.
Infants can develop meningitis at birth if their mother ate food contaminated with listeria or was positive for Group B Strep and did not receive antibiotics during delivery. Infants with meningitis often show symptoms of respiratory distress, fever, rash, lethargy, and jaundice soon after birth.
Protect against meningitis
Though meningitis is a dangerous disease, it is possible to protect against infection.
Vaccines for three types of bacterial meningitis are part of the regular vaccine schedule recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Research shows that vaccines have successfully reduced instances of childhood bacterial meningitis.
Some vaccines protect against diseases that can cause viral meningitis. These include the vaccines for chickenpox, measles, and mumps.
Your hygiene habits will also help protect against viruses that can lead to meningitis. Regular hand washing, cleaning household surfaces like remotes and doorknobs, fully cooking raw meat, and cleaning surfaces before and after meal prep will all help prevent viral infections.
Fungal and parasitic meningitis are often picked up when traveling, primarily in sub-Saharan or equatorial locations. The best way to protect yourself is to check health warnings before you travel to make sure your destination is not experiencing meningitis outbreaks, to drink or swim only in water you know is safe, and to make sure that all food has been properly cleaned and cooked before you eat.
September 25, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN