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Meningitis results from the inflammation of the meninges (the thin membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord). It is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Most cases of meningitis are viral, but it can be hard to tell the difference without invasive testing. It is extremely important to determine the type of infection (and bacteria), because bacterial meningitis tends to be much more serious and requires emergency treatment. Viral meningitis usually clears up on its own and does not cause any permanent harm. Bacterial meningitis can cause brain damage, learning disabilities, hearing loss, or even death without treatment for the specific type of bacteria. Rarely, meningitis can be caused by fungal infections (cryptococcus).
Signs and Symptoms
Early symptoms of meningitis can easily be mistaken for the flu.
In newborns, signs and symptoms include the following:
In children and young adults, signs and symptoms include the following:
Older adults may have no signs or symptoms other than altered mental state and lethargy. Often they have no fever.
What Causes It?
Bacterial meningitis is not as common as viral meningitis, but it is more serious. Several types of bacteria can cause meningitis. Knowing the right type is crucial for proper treatment:
Viral meningitis can be caused by several types of viruses, but the most common are enteroviruses (which cause stomach flu and multiply in the intestinal tract). Other viruses that cause meningitis include:
Who's Most At Risk?
These conditions and characteristics increase the risk for bacterial meningitis:
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
If you or your child has symptoms of meningitis, seek emergency treatment. Early diagnosis is the key to treating meningitis successfully. Doctors will ask for a detailed medical history and may order a lumbar puncture (spinal tap). In this test, doctors remove cerebrospinal fluid from the spine through a needle so that the fluid can be tested for infection and to identify the kind of bacteria responsible. If your doctor suspects bacterial meningitis, your doctor may start you on antibiotics before the test results are available.
Children should be vaccinated against H. influenzae and mumps. People over 65 and those whose immune systems are compromised should receive a pneumococcal vaccine (PPV). A meningococcal vaccine may be given to control epidemics in dormitories, for example. Because meningitis is usually contagious, practicing good hygiene, such as washing your hands frequently -- and teaching children to do the same -- can reduce your risk of catching the disease.
The length and type of treatment varies depending on the kind of meningitis being treated, ranging from 1 - 3 weeks. The treatment for most cases of viral meningitis is aimed at reducing symptoms of fever and aches. Sometimes, doctors prescribe acyclovir, an antiviral drug. If bacterial meningitis is suspected, antibiotics must be started immediately, even before results from lab tests have been returned. Some of the medications used for bacterial meningitis are:
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Meningitis must be treated with conventional medical therapies, especially antibiotics. Complementary and alternative therapies should be used only with conventional treatment, not in place of it, and only under the guidance of a qualified health professional. Some supplements and herbs may help strengthen the immune system, and homeopathic remedies may help relieve symptoms that accompany meningitis. Tell all your providers about any CAM therapies you may be using.
Nutrition and Supplements
Several nutrients can help strengthen the immune system, possibly helping to prevent meningitis or to build up the immune system after meningitis has been treated, though scientific studies have not examined these nutrients specifically for meningitis. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements, and never treat a child without talking to your doctor first.
You may address nutritional deficiencies with the following supplements:
Herbs are generally available as standardized, dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures/liquid extracts (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Mix liquid extracts with favorite beverage. Dose for teas is 1 - 2 heaping teaspoonfuls/cup water steeped for 10 - 15 minutes (roots need longer). Some herbs may help support your immune system, although there is no evidence they can prevent or treat meningitis. Meningitis is a medical emergency and should never be treated with herbs alone.
Although few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following remedies to help alleviate symptoms of meningitis, in addition to standard medical care. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for each individual.
These treatments must not be used for meningitis without direction and supervision by an appropriately trained and certified homeopathic doctor.
About 25 - 30% of people with bacterial meningitis die from it. Among pediatric patients who survive bacterial meningitis, 20 - 50% have brain damage, hearing problems, or developmental difficulties. Most people who get viral meningitis recover completely without any problems. However, some people will experience headaches, weakness, and fatigue for 2 - 3 weeks after symptoms begin.
Complications of meningitis may include hearing loss, seizures, cerebral edema (brain swelling), weakness on one side of the body, speech problems, visual impairment or blindness, difficulty coordinating movements, trouble breathing, respiratory arrest, and recurring meningitis. Children who have meningitis may experience cognitive impairment and developmental delay.
For the first 1 - 2 days, patients should be monitored in the intensive care unit to be sure the medication is working, to watch for any seizures, and to watch for breathing difficulties. If signs and symptoms do not improve after 1 - 2 days, health care providers should check the cerebrospinal fluid again.
Pregnant women often carry L. monocytogenes and S. agalactiae without having symptoms and may pass these infections to their children during birth. Pregnant women should not take rifampin to prevent meningitis because it is not clear whether this drug may harm the fetus.
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Review Date: 12/28/2012
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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