Meningitis is a word that we have all heard; most of us know how serious it is and as mothers, the mention of the word sends shivers down our spines. If, however, we are armed with knowledge and we know what to look for, how to react and what to expect – the mystery and uncertainty surrounding the illness is removed! Let’s start at the very beginning and find out what exactly meningitis is.
Meningitis is a swelling of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. The swelling or inflation may be caused by either by a viral or a bacterial infection.
Viral meningitis is the less serious of the two and is relatively common during the summer months. Thankfully most children who contract viral meningitis recover fully. Viral meningitis can be caused by a variety of viruses, with the most common being the enterovirus. The other viruses that can cause meningitis are, arboviruses, carried by ticks or mosquitoes, the mumps virus (common in children who have not had the MMR vaccine) and the herpes viruses.
Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, is far more severe and poses several serious risks and complications, including death. Bacteria of any type can cause bacterial meningitis, but the most common types are meningococcal and pneumococcal bacteria. Meningococcal germs or bacterium are common and are essentially harmless. The bacterium is found in the noses and throats of all humans. When the bacterium ends up in the wrong place, this is when it causes disease, like meningitis!
The causes of Meningitis
Viral and bacterial meningitis can affect anyone, at any age, however babies and toddlers appear to be at a high risk of meningococcal infection and other types of bacterial meningitis. Strangely enough, teens or young adults between the ages of 15 to 24 again fall in the -high risk’ category.
The spreading meningococcal bacterium
Performing seemingly innocent daily activities can spread meningococcal bacterium. Activities such as kissing, sharing of utensils and drinking glasses, attending camps or sharing dormitory rooms at boarding schools, as well as smoking or being exposed to smoke. Teens who feel run down or -depleted’ due to a lack of sleep or who have irregular sleeping patterns are at a far greater risk for developing meningitis as their immune systems are weakened and they are typically involved in the activities that increase their risk for contracting or spreading meningococcal germs.
Babies and toddlers are also in the -high risk’ category and are particularly vulnerable to meningitis as their immune systems are not fully developed and they are unable to ward off or fight infections.
The symptoms of Meningitis
When the meningitis is caused by bacteria like, meningococcal, the symptoms develop rapidly and a healthy and happy baby or child can exhibit symptoms within hours. With viral meningitis the symptoms can take a couple of days to show.
The common symptoms in babies and toddlers include:
- A rigid or floppy body accompanied by jerky body movements;
- Severe irritability and the child appears to be in pain when being handled;
- A shrill sounding cry or a moaning sound that is not usual;
- Refuses feeds;
- A tense or a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on top of the baby’s head);
- Skin that is pale and patchy (a red rash);
- Fast breathing;
- High fever;
The symptoms of meningitis in older children and adults are:
- A rash which does not fade under pressure;
- A high fever;
- Intense headache;
- Stiff and sore neck;
- Inability to handle bright light;
- Irritability coupled with confusion;
- Muscle pains, abdominal cramps and diarrhoea;
- Hands and feet are cold and appear very pale.
Vaccinations can offer a degree of protection against certain types of bacterial meningitis, including those caused by meningococcus (MenC), Haemophilus influenzae (Hib vaccine) and invasive pneumococcal disease (PCV vaccine). A vaccination against the mumps virus (the MMR vaccine) can also offer protection against viral meningitis caused by mumps.
As a preventative measure, children who have been in close contact with a person suffering from bacterial meningitis may be given a course of antibiotics.
Parents can also help to strengthen their child’s immune system, which may go a long way in preventing meningitis. It’s important to remember that before giving a child any type of supplements, a doctor must be consulted.
The immune system can be boosted with:
- Multivitamins containing antioxidants and vitamins A, C, E, D, the B-complex vitamins, and trace minerals like magnesium, calcium, zinc and selenium;
- Omega-3 fatty acids, like fish oil (this will help to decrease inflammation (if meningitis has been contracted), and it will help to improve immunity.
- A probiotic supplement is essential for gastrointestinal and immune health.
Diagnosis and Treatment
In order to accurately diagnose meningitis, blood tests and a lumbar puncture will need to be done. The lumbar puncture is performed using a very fine needle that is inserted into the base of the child’s spine. The needle is used to draw out fluid and the fluid is examined for any infectious organisms in a lab.
The complications that may arise from bacterial meningitis include damage to hearing, damage to other nerves in the body, brain abscesses, stroke, and collections of fluid on or in the brain. If the child is treated quickly and effectively, these long-term and serious complications and risks can be reduced, if not avoided. If treatment is delayed the risk of long-term damage is greatly increased.
The treatment for meningitis depends on the cause of the meningitis; however intravenous antibiotics will be started at once and will continue if the tests confirm that the meningitis is bacterial. Should other causes be diagnosed, doctors will then treat each cause accordingly. An assortment of medications may be required to effectively control the symptoms of meningitis.
Taking into account the fact that early treatment is essential – if meningitis is suspected, parents need to immediately consult their doctor.