Reducing the Risk of Meningitis

Meningitis is a rare but devastating disease involving inflammation of membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can have several causes, from immunizations and injuries to medications and surgery, but most cases result from viral or bacterial infections. Individuals can become very sick very quickly and sudden deaths sometimes occur. Understanding the disease, recognizing the symptoms and knowing how to reduce your risk is the best prescription for prevention.

Disease Details

Initial infections usually start in the respiratory system, skin, gastrointestinal system or urinary tract. They progress when microorganisms enter the bloodstream and travel to membranes around the brain called meninges. In teens and adults the most common symptoms of meningitis are fever, headache, a stiff neck and vomiting. Drowsiness, sensitivity to light, confusion, seizures or coma may also be present. Symptoms in infants can also include irritability, cough, a high-pitched cry, poor feeding, a skin rash, bulging fontanelles and convulsions. Viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis can have similar symptoms, but diagnosis is important because the treatments drastically differ.

Viral meningitis is much more common than bacterial meningitis and not likely to cause serious illness. It is usually a self-limiting infection and resolves within ten days without treatment or complications. Sometimes symptoms are so mild that the disease goes undetected; other times it is dismissed as the flu.

Bacterial meningitis is rare but it can be life-threatening. Infected individuals may become very ill in less than twenty-four hours. With immediate antibiotic treatment, the death rate is less than 10 percent, but meningitis is often fatal when treatment is delayed. Twenty percent of survivors have long-term sequelae such as learning disabilities, seizures, problems with hearing or vision, paralysis, personality changes, and damage to the heart, liver, intestines or kidneys.

Many bacteria behind bacterial meningitis are usually harmless and commonly found on our skin and inside our noses, throats and gastrointestinal tract. These include Escherichia coli, Haemophilus influenza, and several species of staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria. People can pass the microorganisms to others in close contact through the exchange of body fluids from coughing, sneezing, or kissing. Meningitis can be contagious but according to the Meningitis Research Foundation, ninety-seven percent of cases are isolated and unrelated to other cases.

Risk Reduction

Because so many different microorganisms can cause meningitis, no vaccine will prevent it completely. The immunizations most commonly recommended for the prevention of meningiococcal meningitis, Menactra and Menomune, are about 85% effective at protecting against four strains of bacteria. Side effects most commonly include pain and inflammation at the injection site, headache, fatigue and malaise, but Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) has also been reported. A rare but serious sequela, GBS is an acute autoimmune inflammatory condition that destroys the myelin sheath surrounding nerves. It's usually temporary but can lead to paralysis, respiratory failure, and death.

Bacteria and viruses can only cause meningitis if they enter the bloodstream, so the best prevention is staying healthy and treating infections before they progress. Sick individuals should seek treatment and ask their doctor when they can expect to feel better and what to do if they don’t.

To reduce the risk of infections, minimize the potential for transmission of organisms. When sick, stay home from work, school and other activities. Do not share food, drinks, or personal items such as utensils and toothbrushes with others. Wash hands frequently and thoroughly with warm, soapy water* and remember that people with colds are contagious before they even exhibit symptoms. Viruses and bacteria can be transmitted by touching common surfaces after an infected person has touched them, so disinfecting regularly is also a good idea. This includes desks, counters, phones and keyboards.

Support a healthy immune system by exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet that includes seven to nine servings of fresh vegetables and fruits each day. Nutritional supplements and botanical medicines can also offer immune support, especially during cold and flu season. But never self-prescribe; instead find a doctor trained in the use of these natural therapies to individualize a protocol for you. She or he will take into account your medical history, risk factors, current symptoms and any potential interactions with medications or supplements you may already be taking.

*Antibacterial soap is neither necessary nor recommended because it can contribute to water pollution and bacterial resistance.