Meningitis occurs when the meninges, or membranes, around the spinal cord and brain become inflamed due to a fungal, bacterial, or most commonly, a viral infection. Meningitis is considered a life-threatening condition that requires immediate emergency treatment. Symptoms in the early stages typically present with worsening neck stiffness, headache, and fever.
In order to diagnose meningitis, a procedure known as a spinal tap (or lumbar puncture) is necessary. To perform a lumbar puncture, your doctor will administer an anesthetic, then insert a needle between the spinal bones to extract a sample of spinal fluid. Cloudy spinal fluid, which indicate white blood cells, suggest a meningitis infection is present. Blood and urine samples are typically also taken from the patient. Meningitis can progress very quickly, so fluid samples are rushed to a lab to determine if the meningitis is fungal, bacterial, or viral in nature.
Treatment options for meningitis will depend on the type of infection present:
1. Fungal meningitis
Fungal meningitis (or cryptococcus) is considered the rarest form of meningitis because it typically strikes individuals with immune-suppressing health conditions (i.e., HIV, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, or patients taking drugs like prednisone, which can weaken the immune system). Fungal meningitis results when fungus spreads through the blood to the spinal cord or brain. Treatment for fungal meningitis typically involves hospitalization, IV liquids to avoid dehydration, and the administering of antifungal drugs to fight off the fever and infection.
2. Viral meningitis
According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), viral meningitis is the most prevalent form of meningitis. The most at risk patients are babies younger than 1 month old, children younger than 5-years old, and patients with suppressed immune systems (i.e., recent organ recipients or those undergoing cancer treatment). Viral infections that can cause viral meningitis to develop include influenza virus, lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, measles virus, mumps virus, herpesviruses (i.e., chickenpox and shingles), arboviruses (i.e., West Nile virus), and non-polio type enteroviruses. In rare cases, close and intimate contact with an individual with viral meningitis can cause transmission. Treating viral meningitis depends on severity, and many otherwise healthy individuals can fight the virus on their own. However, hospitalization, intravenous fluids, painkillers, and immediate treatment with antibiotics is important in severe cases.
3. Bacterial meningitis
Although only 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis (or meningococcal meningitis) are reported yearly in the U.S., the bacterial form is considered the most serious and deadly type of meningitis. Bacterial exposure to listeria monocytogenes, haemophilus influenzae, group B streptococcus, streptococcus pneumoniae, and neisseria meningitidis can all cause the development of bacterial meningitis, in addition to causing life-threatening sepsis, and associated tissue damage and organ failure. Not only can death result within a few hours; bacterial meningitis can cause permanent hearing loss and brain damage. Unlike other forms of meningitis, meningococcal meningitis can spread quickly, which means treatment often includes isolated hospitalization for at least 48-hours, and IV administered antibiotics and fluids for as long as 2 weeks to totally fight off the infection. Meningococcal meningitis often causes severe headaches, fever, and light sensitivity.