Spinal meningitis is a serious infectious disease that requires treatment on an emergency basis. Learn more about its causes, symptoms and treatment from this article.
The spinal cord and the brain are surrounded by a membrane lining called meninges. There are three layers of meninges in this area, which ensure proper protection to the brain and the spinal cord. Spinal meningitis is a serious infectious disease that affects the tissues of the meninges. As a result, inflammation occurs in the meninges and the infection spreads into the spinal fluid. This is a highly contagious disease. Adults of all age groups may suffer from spinal meningitis but elderly people are at a higher risk of getting this infection as they have a weak immune system.
Spinal meningitis is categorized as bacterial and non-bacterial. A bacterial meningitis is termed as purulent meningitis and non-bacterial meningitis is known as aseptic meningitis. Spinal meningitis in adults is mostly triggered by a bacterial attack. There are two types of bacteria, which are responsible for causing this infection. They are Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria meningitidis.
Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria attacks the upper respiratory tract first and causes infection there. Later on, it enters into the bloodstream and reaches the spinal cord where it invades the meninges. Neisseria meningitidis strikes the protective membranes of meninges directly. Non bacterial meningitis is rarely found in adults and is not a serious health issue as compared to spinal meningitis caused by bacteria. It can be triggered by viral infection, fungal infection, drug allergies, etc.
Spinal meningitis may produce symptoms within one or two hours of infection or they may develop slowly after a few days. Recognizing these symptoms can ensure proper diagnosis of the disease at an early stage. The characteristics of spinal meningitis in adult patients are slightly different from that of children. Some of the key symptoms that are observed in adults are discussed below.
- High fever: Spinal meningitis fever, also referred to as brain fever, rises rapidly and often refuses to subside even after taking medicines.
- Severe headache accompanied by stiff neck: These are two of the most easily identifiable symptoms of spinal meningitis in adults. In this condition, the neck often becomes so stiff that one finds it difficult to move the head or touch the chest with the chin.
- Nausea and vomiting: These are commonly associated with meningitis headache. These two symptoms disappear as soon as the headache goes away.
- Mental confusion: As the infection has a damaging effect on the brain, it leads to problems like disorientation, decreased consciousness and difficulty in concentration.
- Photophobia: Photophobia or extreme sensitivity towards light is a common symptom observed as a result of which, meningitis patients feel pain in their eyes when they are exposed to bright light.
- Other symptoms: There are some additional general symptoms that are observed in this condition. They are rapid breathing, fatigue, sleepiness, joint pain, muscle spasm, irritability, difficulty in eating, etc.
Spinal meningitis is not similar to the usual fever that can be treated with over the counter medicines. The treatment should be carried out under medical supervision only. It is diagnosed with the help of its symptoms, physical examination of the patient and a series of laboratory tests. Lumbar puncture is one of the key laboratory tests that confirms presence of infection in the body. For this, a sample of spinal fluid is taken out by inserting a needle into the spine and is then tested for infection. Blood tests like complete blood count test and blood culture as well as X-rays, CT scan, etc. are conducted for its diagnosis. In most cases of bacterial spinal meningitis in adults, the patient needs to be hospitalized and kept under observation.
Antibiotics are used for the treatment, which could be administered either orally or intravenously. If the health condition of the patient is serious, doctors prefer intravenous administration of the medicines. It is accompanied by steroid medicines that can bring down swelling in the meninges and thus any kind of damage to the brain and spinal cord is prevented. Intravenous fluids are also given to the patient to keep their body hydrated, which is important for reducing the swelling in the brain. If it is found that there is accumulation of infected fluid in between spinal cord and its protective membrane, then it is drained out by surgical means.
Even though spinal meningitis is a serious issue, the patient can be cured completely with timely treatment. Usually, the recovery time is around two weeks. However, if the treatment is delayed, the blood vessels in the brain may get blocked and lead to permanent damage in the brain. Sometimes, it could be fatal as well. Hence, consult your doctor with least delay when you begin observing the aforementioned symptoms.