Meningitis is a rare but serious infection of the membranes (meninges) that cover the brain and spinal cord.
Meningitis can be caused by a range of different bacteria, fungi and viruses.
Viral meningitis is usually mild and recovery is swift.
Bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency and can be fatal without prompt treatment.
Fungal meningitis is most commonly caused by an infection of the fungus, Cryptococcus. It does not develop acutely, but usually progresses slowly, causing headaches and cranial nerve palsies. It may be fatal or cause permanent brain damage.
Haemophilus (Hib) meningitis used to be the most common type of meningitis in Australia until a national vaccination program was set up in 1992.
Today the most common types of bacterial meningitis are caused by the Meningococcus bacteria and the Pneumococcus bacteria.
A new type of vaccine is now available that can give long lasting protection against Group C meningococcal disease, one of the most common groups of the disease in Australia.
A national Group C meningococcal vaccine program commenced in Australia in 2003. The vaccine is given free to children aged 12 months to 15 years and adolescents aged 16 and 17 years.
Unfortunately there is no vaccine for meningococcal Group B disease, the other most common type in Australia.
The germs that cause bacterial meningitis may live in the nose and throat. People of any age can carry them without becoming ill, but they can infect someone else through coughing or sneezing.
The symptoms of meningitis in babies and young children include: fever, food refusal, fretfulness, drowsiness, purple-red skin rash or bruising, high moaning cry, light sensitivity and pale or blotchy skin.
Symptoms in older children and adults include; headache, fever, vomiting, neck stiffness and joint pains, drowsiness and confusion, purple-red skin rash or bruising, light sensitivity.
If you are concerned you should contact your GP immediately. If your doctor is not available, go to the emergency department of your nearest hospital.
Viral meningitis is usually mild and antibiotics are not needed. It is usually treated like the flu with patients advised to get bed rest and drink plenty of fluids.
Bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency and can be fatal if not treated quickly. Intravenous antibiotics are usually started as soon as bacterial meningitis is suspected. Close contacts are sometimes given clearance antibiotics to reduce the risk of further infection.
Fungal meningitis is treated with intravenous and oral anti-fungal agents.
Prompt treatment of meningitis is vital. Early diagnosis and treatment reduce the risk of infection and the risk of complications from infection.
Viral meningitis is usually mild and recovery is swift with the illness getting better on its own in 7-10 days.
Bacterial meningitis can be severe. Recovery can be slow and not everyone has a full recovery.
The death rate is about 5 per cent and some patients are left with permanent disabilities such as cerebral palsy and deafness.
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