The membrane sheath that protects and cushions the brain and spinal cord is called the meninges; when it becomes inflamed, that is the condition known as meningitis. Generally, this inflammation is due to an infection, which is usually viral though sometimes bacterial or fungal. Meningitis can also be a reaction to medication. The four are different conditions in terms of mechanism and treatment, but the effects and symptoms are similar. In all, meningitis from all causes strikes about 25,000 people annually.
Meningitis symptoms include fever, nausea and headache, loss of appetite, and seizures. Fever is a particularly important symptom to be aware of; when it is accompanied by confusion, vomiting, a severe headache, and a stiff neck, this indicates a need for immediate medical attention. In the absence of thee symptoms, a health care professional should still be consulted, though viral forms of meningitis do sometimes go away without intervention.
Meningitis can be prevented like any other infection. Good hygiene practices and washing hands appropriately—such as before handling food and after riding public transportation or coming in from outside—will prevent a great deal of infection. Cooking food thoroughly can help prevent the spread of infections that can lead to meningitis. Meningitis can also be prevented with vaccinations. The vaccine for the most common form, meningitis B, is almost 75 percent effective.
Another vaccine is effective against meningitis A, a form of the disease common in sub-Saharan Africa. "Effective" is an understatement—in places where vaccination programs operated, there were zero recorded cases of meningitis A in 2012, and a 94 percent reduction in overall meningitis cases. Recently, advances in vaccines have allowed the vaccine to reach remote areas where a program was not previously feasible. Vaccines have been developed that don’t need refrigeration, allowing more distant areas to be covered.
Cold has also been used to treat meningitis. Induced hypothermia has been used to prevent the inflammation in meningitis from doing permanent damage. Medical induction of hypothermia appeared to reduce pressure in the brains of trauma patients, and the thought was that the same effect would be observed in people with meningitis. However, in tests, this technique had a high mortality rate and the recommendation was that the treatment not be used.