Meningitis is a disease characterised by the inflammation of the meninges, the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.

It is usually the result of a viral or bacterial infection spreading from another part of the body, for example, the enteroviruses that occur in the intestines or from the bacterium Streptococcus pneumonia, or other causes like a fungal disease, tuberculosis or cancer.

However, in uncommon cases, meningitis causes may be fungal or brought on by certain medications. Aside from the different microbes responsible, viral and bacterial meningitis also differ in severity, with the deadly bacterial type requiring urgent treatment, while the viral kind is much milder, often resolving on its own.

What are its symptoms?

Meningitis symptoms usually come on suddenly in the case of the bacterial type or develop over the course of a few days in viral infections. The most common symptoms include:

  • Severe headache
  • Neck stiffness, characterised by difficulty bending the neck forward
  • Fever
  • Confused mental state
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Depending on the bacterium responsible, a rash may appear
  • It’s vital to note that meningitis symptoms in children and babies are not always as typical as in adults and may seem like nothing more than the flu, with increased irritability, fever and crying being the only signs that the child is unwell. 

How is it diagnosed?

After conducting a physical exam and medical history, the most important test for making a meningitis diagnosis is the lumbar puncture. Here a doctor uses a long, thin needle to take a sample of your cerebrospinal fluid from around the spinal cord for analysis. Your doctor will look for certain markers that indicate a meningitis infection, as well as identifying which microbe is causing the disease. Blood tests can also look for signs of infection in the body, while X-rays and other imaging tests can reveal inflammation.

What are your treatment options?

According to the Meningitis Association of South Africa (MASA), if meningitis treatment is delayed, it can lead to permanent brain damage, hearing impairment/loss, mental retardation, seizures or paralysis.

Due to the risk of life-threatening complications in cases of suspected bacterial meningitis, a doctor will usually prescribe a broad-spectrum antibiotic even before the test results are back. Further antibiotic treatment will depend on the organism responsible and other medication may be used to improve patient outcomes.

Viral meningitis will typically resolve with bed rest, symptomatic treatment with over-the-counter remedies and adequate hydration.

Can it be prevented?

Meningitis is typically caused by an infectious organism, meaning that it is contagious. MASA says that vaccination is one of the keys to meningitis prevention, with vaccines available for meningococcal meningitis (caused by the Neisseria meningitidis bacterium) and pneumococcal meningits (caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae).

The spread of meningitis can also be prevented by reducing exposure to anyone with a suspected case of meningitis and by always practising good hygiene. Alert your doctor if you have been in close contact with someone who has bacterial meningitis.

What to do next?
Baby immunisations are available at Clicks clinics, including for meningitis. Stay on track with your little one's immunisations with the Clicks childhood vaccination schedule. 

To make an appointment at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or visit Clicks Clinics online

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2015