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What is bacterial meningitis?

Imagine the worst migraine you’ve ever had. Now add achy muscles, a stiff neck, vomiting and a fever. While this sounds like a bad case of the flu, it could be more — much more. Bacterial meningitis comes on quickly and fools most people into thinking they have the flu.

Tween with migraine

What is bacterial meningitis?

The brain and spinal cord are protected by several layers of tissue called the meninges. Bacterial meningitis occurs when bacteria infect the meninges. Three nasty bacteria that are transmitted via nose or throat secretion — Haemophilus influenzae type B, Neisseria menintidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae — are the leading causes of bacterial meningitis today.

A quick-acting enemy

When bacterial meningitis hits, it comes on strong, attacking the system at a rapid pace. Infected patients can experience flu-like symptoms that result in permanent brain damage, paralysis, blindness, hearing loss, shock or even death within a couple of hours of onset. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms and they appear to be getting worse, seek treatment immediately.

DIAGNOSING meningitis

Bacterial meningitis requires fast-acting medical attention and can be diagnosed for certain only by analyzing spinal fluid. Spinal fluid is acquired through a spinal tap, a painful but necessary procedure in which a hypodermic needle extracts fluid from the spinal column. The fluid is then sent to a lab for analysis.


Once the frightening disease is diagnosed, an intense series of antibiotics is administered and normally stops the disease in its tracks. Some patients are left with whatever damage the bacteria managed to wreak before treatment — such as memory loss or partial paralysis — while others recover completely. Fast treatment, then, is crucial.


Before paranoia consumes you, know the facts. Bacterial meningitis can’t be transmitted simply by breathing the same air as someone who’s infected, nor can it be spread in swimming pools or by touch. It is far less contagious than the common cold and can be transmitted only via direct contact with an infected person’s oral or respiratory secretions through, for example, kissing an infected person, or breathing near the person as he sneezes or coughs.

The risk of bacterial meningitis can be reduced greatly by staying current on one of two preventative meningitis vaccines — meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine or the more common meningococcal conjugate vaccine. As of 2005, most patients received the latter.

The scary truth is that anyone of any age can be infected with bacterial meningitis. Getting the meningitis vaccine and knowing the signs are the best steps you can take to ensure safety for yourself and your family.

More articles on meningitis

What is meningitis?
Bacterial vs. viral meningitis
Understanding the meningitis vaccine

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