Recognizing the symptoms of meningitis

A Boston middle school student died earlier this week, and bacterial meningitis is thought to be the cause of death. According to reports, the young girl complained to a school nurse that she felt sick on Friday; by Monday night she had died.

Meningitis is the term for an infection that affects the brain and spinal cord. There are lots of different kinds, from mild types of viral meningitis that completely resolve without any problems, to the severe kind of bacterial meningitis that is being blamed for this young girl’s death.

It’s a tragic story and one that’s likely to get media coverage because of the patient’s young age and the fact that bacterial meningitis can be contagious. It’s most likely to be transmitted from person to person in close living quarters, especially through coughing or sneezing, kissing or other activities where people share saliva, like sharing drinking glasses or water bottles.

It’s understandable that parents might become frightened when they hear about meningitis, but there is usually no reason to panic. Bacterial meningitis is uncommon, affecting only about 1 in 100,000 Americans each year.  And while it can spread between close contacts (especially people who live together, like families or students in dorms), people who have had more casual contact with meningitis are rarely at risk.

Sharing drinks can spread germs, including those that cause meningitis

Symptoms of meningitis include fever, headache (usually a bad headache), sleepiness and a stiff neck. Nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, mild confusion, sore throat and muscle aches are also possible. In more severe cases, seizures or loss of consciousness may occur. Sometimes there can be a rash; if the rash is very dark red, like tiny bruises, it can be a sign of one of the most serious kinds of meningitis and parents should seek immediate medical attention.

The treatment of meningitis depends on the germ that is causing it. Many cases don’t require treatment, just rest and medication for fever and discomfort. Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics, usually given in the hospital. For some kinds of viral meningitis, antiviral medications are given.

Most people with meningitis will recover completely, especially if treated early, but complications such as seizures or damage to the brain are possible. In rare cases, like we saw here in Boston this week, it can be fatal.

If someone has been in close contact with a person who is diagnosed with meningitis, they should talk to their doctor about whether they need to take any medication.  Usually it’s not necessary, but in certain situations antibiotics are recommended for prevention.

One of the best things parents can do to prevent meningitis is to be sure that their children are fully immunized.  Vaccines can help prevent three kinds of bacterial meningitis: haemophilus influenza type B, pneumococcal, and meningococcal.

If parents can take anything away from this sad story, it’s that they should be aware of the symptoms of meningitis and some of the easier ways to prevent it, like making sure everyone in the family is in the habit of washing their hands often and making sure the child has had his or her vaccinations. Lastly, if you think that your child has symptoms of meningitis, speak with a doctor immediately because early treatment is key to a good outcome.