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Home For Patients and Families Health and Wellness Health Tips from Our Experts Bacterial Meningitis
Marvin Harper, MD
What is bacterial meningitis vs. viral meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection that causes inflammation of the three thin layers of tissue, known as meninges, that cover the brain and spinal cord. The two most common types of meningitis are bacterial and viral, and although they have similar symptoms (viral meningitis symptoms may be milder), the two diseases are quite different and require different treatment.
When caused by a virus, meningitis is usually far less severe and is typically treated with bed rest or over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol. But because some other viruses are very serious and can invade the brain, it's important to seek medical attention as a precaution.
Bacterial meningitis is generally much more severe than simple viral meningitis because it can cause serious complications. If not treated immediately, it can be fatal or cause permanent damage to the brain, so it's important to get medical attention as soon as symptoms are discovered.
Type of Meningitis Viral Meningitis Bacterial Meningitis
Symptoms Fever, headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, drowsiness, confusion. High fever, severe headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, drowsiness, confusion. A rash, nausea, vomiting, and sore throat can also occur.
Effects Temporary, flu-like symptoms, headache, and stiff neck. Possibility of varying degrees of brain damage, including hearing loss and mental retardation. Can be fatal if not treated in time.
Severity Goes away on its own usually within three to 10 days. Life-threatening. Medical treatment is needed immediately
Treatment Bed rest, Tylenol Hospitalization and antibiotics
Don Goldmann, MD
What are the effects of bacterial meningitis?
With early antibiotic treatment, the risk of bacterial meningitis being fatal is less than 15 percent, however, there is still a 10 to 15 percent chance of permanent brain damage. The level of damage depends on how much swelling and inflammation occurs near the brain. The stroke-like effects caused by the swelling can include:
What are the symptoms?
Bacterial meningitis usually starts with headache and fever, which are common to many illnesses, making bacterial meningitis difficult to diagnose at this stage. Symptoms more specific to bacterial meningitis include severe headache, pain when bending the neck forward or a stiff neck, and sometimes sensitivity to light. Later symptoms can include confusion, lethargy, or seizures. Symptoms can progress rapidly, and some patients experience delirium or coma by the time they seek treatment. In infants, the symptoms to be aware of are:
Irritability (fussy and crying a lot)
Crying when moved
A bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on an infant's head)
For children older than 1 year, look for:
Neck or back pain (or stiff neck)
Sensitivity to light
Refusing to eat
Decreased level of consciousness
Nausea and vomiting
It is important to emphasize that children may not display all of the above signs and symptoms. "There is no way a parent can definitively tell if a child has bacterial meningitis, but parents are generally pretty aware of when their child is sick and in need of medical care," says Donald Goldmann, MD, an infectious disease expert at Children's Hospital Boston. "It's important that a patient shows up at the hospital quickly or it may be too late in the game."
It appears from this the seizures are a symptom of the disease and not necessarily a hereditary indicator.