Rearview image of a young man holding his neck, suffering from neck pain.

Meningitis occurs when the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meninges) become infected and inflamed. This inflammation is responsible for the telltale sign of the infectious disease: a headache and stiff neck.

Most people are familiar with meningitis, at least by name. It seems like every year or so there is an outbreak either in a community or on a college campus. But what actually causes meningitis, and how can it be prevented?

Meningitis occurs when the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meninges) become infected and inflamed. This inflammation is responsible for the telltale sign of the infectious disease: a headache and stiff neck.

“We’re most familiar with the bacterial or viral strains of meningitis, however there are also fungal, parasitic and non-infective types of meningitis, which aren’t as common,” explained Cristie Columbus, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and vice dean of the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine in Dallas.

To help brush up on our knowledge of meningitis, we sat down with Columbus to reveal some of the lesser-known facts about the disease.

1. There’s more than one cause of meningitis

Meningitis is often used as a singular term, however there are many different organisms that can affect people. The most common bacterial causes of meningitis include Group B streptococcus, Neisseria meningitidis (also known as meningococcus), Streptococcus pneumoniae, (also known as pneumococcus), and Listeria monocytogenes.

Fortunately, the germs that cause meningitis are not as contagious as the viruses that cause the common cold or the flu, but Columbus still advises following the same precautions to reduce the risk of contraction:

  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Do not eat or drink after others
  • Do not share toothbrushes with people
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products
  • Practice safe food handling

 

2. Different people are at risk for different causes of bacterial meningitis

There are several factors that put people at greater risk for meningitis, including people living in close living quarters (which is why we commonly see outbreaks on college campuses), having a brain or skull injury, immunosuppression and those who have had their spleen removed. However, different types of meningitis pose a higher risk to certain groups of people.

  • Newborns are most often affected by group B streptococcus meningitis
  • Adolescents are at greater risk for meningococcal meningitis
  • Adults with bacterial meningitis are most likely to have pneumococcal meningitis
  • Older Adults (50 and older) and pregnant women are more susceptible to listeria meningitis

 

3. Meningitis can cause permanent damage

“In severe cases, meningitis can cause permanent damage,” Columbus cautioned. “The most common complication is hearing loss, but it can also cause brain damage, including subtle neuro-cognitive difficulties (such as difficulty remembering specific words or making calculations) and hydrocephalus – caused by inflammation of the base of the brain and the accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the ventricles of the brain.”

In some cases, the infection spreads to other parts of the body (including the bloodstream) and may require amputation of limbs or can even prove to be fatal.

If someone is experiencing the symptoms of meningitis (sudden onset of fever, headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, nausea, vomiting and altered mental status or confusion), they should seek medical attention immediately.

4. The original meningococcal vaccine doesn’t cover all the strains

“The conjugate vaccines (Mentactra®, Menveo® and MenHibrix®) cover four different serogroups of Neisseria meningitidis, however, they don’t cover one of the most common strains in the U.S.: serogroup B,” Columbus explained. “Recently two new vaccines were approved to prevent meningitis from serogroup B – Trumenba® and Bexsero®.”

For adolescents, meningococcal vaccine is recommended for pre-teens at age 11 to 12, with a booster at age 16.  For adults who have not previously received the meningococcal vaccine, it is recommended for first-year college students living in a residency hall, military recruits, patients whose spleens have been damaged or surgically removed, patients with a type of immune suppression known as terminal complement deficiency, microbiologists routinely exposed to Neisseria meningitidis and travelers to a country in which the disease is common.

Pneumococcal vaccines to prevent invasive pneumococcal infections, such as meningitis, are recommended for healthy infants and children through age four, for adults older than 65 years and for both children and adults with certain underlying diseases and/or immunocompromising conditions that predispose them to pneumococcal infections.

For more information on the types of meningitis and available vaccines, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

— Elizabeth Grimm

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