More than 25,000 people get meningitis each year, though the number is falling. The disease occurs when the membranes around the brain become inflamed and affect functioning. This leads to symptoms including fever, nausea and headache, loss of appetite, and seizures. It is important that anyone who exhibits fever, a severe headache, a stiff neck, confusion, and vomiting should see a doctor immediately, as this may indicate a particularly dangerous and fast-moving form of the disease.
Meningitis can be caused by either bacteria or a virus. The more common viral kind is often mild, but bacterial meningitis—caused by bacteria such as pneumococcus and listeria carried by as many as a quarter of the population, though usually dormant and harmless—can be fatal. In very rare cases a fungal infestation can cause chronic meningitis. People who haven’t been vaccinated are at particular risk, as are pregnant women and people who are immunocompromised.
Bacterial meningitis, left untreated, is fatal in about 15 percent of cases. Other effects of untreated meningitis include hearing loss, trouble with memory and learning, brain damage, chronic seizures, trouble walking steadily, and kidney failure. These effects can set in quickly, but they are more likely the longer it is before treatment is begun, which is why it’s important to get medical attention for suspected cases of bacterial meningitis right away.
Fortunately, there is treatment. Antibiotics must be administered quickly, along with corticosteroids to take care of the inflammation directly. On the other hand, mild cases of viral meningitis may not need to be treated at all, beyond plenty of rest and fluids and over-the-counter pain relievers. This common variety usually clears up on its own. More severe cases do respond to antiviral medications.
Preventing meningitis requires similar tactics to preventing the spread of colds, Handwashing and general hygiene practices can go a long way. Maintaining general good health, such as by getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet, will also help prevent the disease. In addition, cooking food thoroughly can help avoid listeria, and there are vaccines available both for the more common bacteria that cause the disease and for meningitis itself.