With initial symptoms such as a headache, fever, and stiff neck, meningitis can easily be mistaken for the flu.
With initial symptoms such as a headache, fever, and stiff neck, meningitis can easily be mistaken for the flu. In fact, meningitis tends to come on the heels of flu-like illness, making it all the harder to spot and delaying treatment. But unlike the flu, meningitis can kill in hours. That is why it’s crucial that everyone, especially parents of young children, knows the hallmark symptoms of the disease and can therefore act swiftly.
What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges (the lining which surrounds your brain and spinal cord). The swelling is commonly caused by an infection- viral or bacterial. Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis but it is usually less severe.
Bacterial meningitis is a severe form of the disease which can leave permanent damage or even turn fatal. If not treated promptly, it can cause permanent brain damage, hearing loss, learning disabilities among other complications. Viral meningitis, on the other hand, usually goes away on its own and leaves no permanent damage or disability.
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It can also be caused by fungal infections, a reaction to certain medications or medical treatments, an inflammatory disease such as lupus, some types of cancer, or a traumatic head or spinal injury.
The swelling of the meninges triggers symptoms such as a severe headache, fever, and stiff neck. In some cases, meningitis is accompanied by septicaemia (blood poisoning from infections).
Who is at risk?
Meningitis occurs worldwide, with bacterial meningitis affecting approximately 1.2 million people every year. However, the highest incidence of the disease is found in the “meningitis belt” of Sub-Saharan Africa. In the region, epidemics occur every 5-12 years, with rates 1000 people per 100,000.
Meningitis can affect anyone at any age- but its most common the young and the old (under 5 and over 60 years old). Young adults between ages 15-24 are also at heightened risk of meningitis, especially when they’re living in a community setting such as dormitories or military bases. Other factors which predispose one to meningitis include suffering from AIDs, diabetes, or using immunosuppressant drugs.
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What are the symptoms?
If you have a headache and feeling feverish, you might have the flu. If these symptoms are accompanied by a stiff neck, confusion, seizures, sleepiness or difficulty waking up and sensitivity to light -- head to the hospital immediately as you might have meningitis.
The earlier meningitis is properly diagnosed and treated, the better the chances for full recovery. The course of treatment depends on the cause of the disease. It can be difficult for doctors to tell whether you have bacterial or viral meningitis.
A lumbar puncture or a spinal tap is usually required to diagnose whether you have meningitis and if it’s viral or bacterial. The extracted cerebrospinal fluid is tested for both viral and bacterial infection.
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Meningitis is a serious illness and therefore, taking steps towards prevention is important. The most serious forms of meningitis include meningococcal meningitis, Haemophilus influenza, and pneumococcal meningitis.
Fortunately, there are vaccines for these types of meningitis -- which are available even in public hospitals. Meningitis vaccines are recommended for anyone from the age of one onwards, and especially so for children attending day-care facilities, students living in dormitories, those with compromised immune systems, and those who have damaged spleen or whose spleen has been removed. Talk to your doctor about getting you and your children vaccinated.
Getting vaccinated for measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox can also prevent some of the viral infections which cause viral meningitis.
To reduce your risk of picking up the disease, practice good personal hygiene. Avoid sharing food, utensils, and personal care items with anyone who has meningitis. When you come into contact with someone suffering from the disease, wash your hands carefully and thoroughly with soap and water.
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If you’re pregnant, take extra care with your food. Avoid cheese made from unpasteurised milk and cook your meat thoroughly.