Meningitis is a fairly rare infection of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. These membranes are called meninges, hence the term meningitis. There are several types of meningitis:
- Bacterial Meningitis is contagious among people in close contact and can be deadly.
- Viral Meningitis is usually less severe, and most people recover completely from it.
- Fungal Meningitis is rare and usually only appears in people with compromised immune systems.
How Does it Happen?
Most of the time, meningitis is caused by virus or bacterial infection. It begins elsewhere in the body, such as the upper respiratory tract, sinuses, or ears, and then spreads to the meninges. It can also be caused by medications, autoimmune disorders, or fungal infections, but these are more rare.
This is a very serious illness that requires immediate medical attention. Death or permanent damage to the brain or other areas of the body can occur within hours if left untreated. There are several different kinds of bacteria that can cause it:
- Meningococcus, which is the most common
- Pneumococcus, which occurs in older patients with a weakened immune system
- Haemophilus Influenza, type B, was common in infants and small children until a vaccine came out called hib.
Vaccines are also available for Meningococcus and Pneumococcus bacteria and are highly recommended for people with a special risk, such as a compromised immune system.
An infected person can pass the bacteria by sneezing or coughing. It is important for you to contact your health care provider if you are exposed to meningitis to find out what you can do to prevent contracting it. When bacteria gets into your bloodstream, it can travel to your brain and cause meningitis.
This form of meningitis is more common and is usually less severe. There are many viruses that can trigger it, several of which cause diarrhea. Viral meningitis patients usually recover completely and are less likely to incur any brain damage.
This type of meningitis is rare. However, if you are suffering from a compromised immune system, from HIV for example, your chances of contracting it are greater.
Who is at Risk?
While anyone can contract meningitis, there are some age groups that have a higher incidence than others. These are:
- Adults over age 55
- Teens and Young Adults from age 16 to 25
- Children under the age of 5
Certain medical conditions can also put you at risk, such as chronic disease or a damaged or missing spleen, and especially immune system disorders. These disorders occur when your immune system is either overactive or under active. When it is overactive, the body attacks itself; when it is under active, it decreases your ability to fight off infections. Some examples of immune system disorders are:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Guillian Barre Syndrome
- Graves Disease
- Rheumatic Fever
Meningitis outbreaks are most likely to occur in areas where people are living in close quarters, such as a college dorm or army personnel living in barracks. This is because certain germs that cause it can be contagious. People who travel are also at higher risk, particularly if you are traveling to certain parts of Africa where the disease is known to be prevalent.
Keep in mind, however, that even if you are in one of the higher risk groups for contracting meningitis, it is still a rare disease, and there are steps you can take to minimize your chances of getting it.