Thursday, January 10, 2019

Protect Yourself From Bacterial Meningitis

By Kevin Francioni, MD
Pediatric resident physician at The University at Austin Dell Medical School
Member, Texas Medical Association 

Meningitis is a serious infection of the tissues surrounding your brain and spinal cord. It can result in serious neurologic impairment, or even death, if not treated adequately or promptly. As pediatricians, we often worry about this serious infection in tiny babies who have fever, but meningitis is an illness that can affect people of all ages. Meningitis can be caused by a viral, fungal, or bacterial infection, the latter of which is my focus here.

Bacterial meningitis is very serious, and can kill someone in as little as a few hours. Patients also can suffer brain damage, lose their hearing, or experience learning disabilities.

Symptoms of meningitis include new fever, severe headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, and photophobia (eye pain from bright lights). Physicians can diagnose the condition with a lumbar puncture known as a spinal tap. During this procedure, a doctor inserts a needle between two bones in your lower back to remove and study a sample of cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord.

The bacteria that commonly cause meningitis in teens and young adults are known as Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae. Meningitis is often spread by close contact with others who have it in their body. Simply coughing on or kissing someone can pass the infection, through saliva, or spit. It often occurs among people living in close quarters like dormitories. That is why Texas law requires new or transferring college students up to age 22 to get a meningococcal vaccination and show proof before moving onto campus. In fact, according to a new study published recently in the Pediatrics medical journal, college students are more than three times as likely to contract meningococcal disease serogroup B (MenB), one type of bacterial meningitis, than other young adults aged 18 to 24.

Several vaccines help prevent meningitis. It's best to ask your
physician which shot is right for you and your child. 
Thankfully, several vaccines help prevent meningitis. They have names such as pneumococcal vaccine (PCV), Haemophilus influenzae (Hib), meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV) and the serogroup B meningococcal vaccine (MenB). Doctors recommend specific shots for certain ages of patients, so it’s best to ask your physician which shot is right for you or your child. Some vaccines to prevent meningitis can be given to infants and children, while others are best for college-age and older people. (Again, I suggest you ask your physician which vaccine is best for you.)

You also can help prevent the spread of meningitis by washing your hands often, and avoiding close contact with people known to have meningitis.

You can even take antibiotics if you have been in close contact with someone with specific types of bacterial meningitis (you would need to consult with your physician about this, too).

For more information on meningitis and vaccinations, please see this Texas Medical Association fact sheet (in English and Spanish) or visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website:

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