What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is most commonly caused by a virus or bacteria.

Viral meningitis may be caused by a wide variety of viruses. Antibiotics have no effect. People with viral meningitis almost always recover without treatment.

Bacterial meningitis is a serious bacterial infection. It has the potential to cause long term complications, such as deafness or brain injury. It can also cause death. Bacterial meningitis requires immediate treatment with antibiotics. The two most common types of bacterial meningitis are meningococcal and pneumococcal.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

Symptoms of meningitis may include the following:

  • a severe headache
  • high fever
  • vomiting
  • sensitivity to bright lights
  • neck stiffness and joint pains
  • irritability
  • drowsiness, confusion or coma
  • a rash of tiny, red-purple spots or bruises that may occur anywhere on the body

Infants with meningitis may:

  • be difficult to wake
  • have a high fever
  • be vomiting
  • have a loss of appetite
  • have a high pitched cry or be moaning
  • be fussy or irritable and cry more than normal
  • have pale or blotchy skin
  • have a rash of tiny, red-purple spots or bruises that may occur anywhere on the body

Meningitis is a very serious illness. Symptoms may develop over one to two days or within a few hours. If you develop these symptoms, call your health care provider or go immediately to the nearest hospital emergency department.

How is meningitis spread?

It is spread through droplets from the nose, mouth or throat when an infected person is coughing, sneezing or kissing. The bacteria can also be spread through saliva of an infected person when sharing items such as:

  • cigarettes
  • lipstick
  • food or beverages
  • straws, cups or water bottles
  • toothbrushes
  • mouth guards
  • musical instruments with mouthpieces
How can I protect myself against meningitis?
In general, people should avoid direct contact with the oral and nasal secretions of others by not sharing items such as cigarettes, toothbrushes, eating utensils, food and beverages. The spread of meningitis may be reduced by good hand washing, especially after coughing and sneezing.
Is there a vaccine?

There is no vaccine that protects against all causes of meningitis. There is a vaccine for some types of bacterial meningitis, such as meningococcal and pneumococcal meningitis. The Meningococcal-C vaccine is routinely given to babies who are 12 months of age in Ontario. The Meningococcal Conjugate-ACYW 135 vaccine is routinely given to children in grade 7 in Ontario. A meningococcal vaccine may also be given to people who have a higher risk of getting meningococcal disease (for example, if they have a medical condition). There is no vaccine for viral meningitis. If you are unsure of your immunization status, contact your health care provider.

For further information visit Canadian Paediatric Society website

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