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If you suspect meningitis, you should seek medical help

Wednesday is World Meningitis Day, dedicated to raising awareness about this disease. Worldwide, more than 1.7 million people suffer from meningitis, a sometimes treatable and often preventable disease.

Meningitis refers to inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, which may be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, physical injury, cancer and certain drugs. If you have meningitis, you may have one or more of the following symptoms: fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting, and altered mental status.

Seek medical care if you suspect meningitis because the treatment, severity and potential outcomes vary depending on the cause.

Newborns and infants are at higher risk of severe bacterial or viral meningitis and may not show symptoms, or symptoms may be difficult to spot. An infant who has symptoms described above or lacks alertness, is irritable, is vomiting or feeding poorly, has a bulging soft spot on its head or displays abnormal reflexes should be seen by a health care provider immediately.

When I was in medical school and residency, meningitis was a more common problem for infants, but since the pneumococcal and Hib (Haemophilus influenza type B) vaccines became available in 2000 and 1985, respectively, such infections are quite unusual. Hib vaccines are given to infants only since they are most susceptible to this particular infection. Check with your health care provider to see if the pneumococcal vaccine is recommended for you or your children. Meningococcal meningitis vaccinations are also available for people who are traveling to countries where it is more common and for teenagers or college students.

Bacterial meningitis can be contagious and can cause death or lasting complications such as brain damage, hearing loss and learning problems. When bacterial meningitis is quickly treated with antibiotics, the risk of dying from it is less than 15 percent.

Viral meningitis is contagious too, but it is usually less severe than bacterial meningitis and people often recover with minimal treatment, which is good because antibiotics do not work for viral infections. People with severe infection or a weak immune system are often hospitalized for supportive measures to improve their recovery. Viruses that can cause meningitis include mumps, Epstein-Barr, herpes simplex, varicella-zoster, measles and influenza. You can protect yourself and your children by getting vaccinated for measles, mumps, influenza and chickenpox.

Although it is rare, you may recall the outbreak of fungal meningitis in 2012 that was linked to contaminated steroid injections. There were 730 people who became ill, and 51 of them died. Those medications were contaminated by a private pharmacy that was not following rules about sterile preparations of medications. Fungal meningitis is not passed from person to person and is treated with antifungal medications given intravenously and repeatedly over a long period of time.

Another type of meningitis is caused by an amoeba (Naegleria fowleri) found in warm waters around the world. In the United States it can be found in places like the hot pools off the Colorado River and some Midwestern lakes and rivers. This amoeba is not caught from another person or by drinking water that is contaminated with it. Infection can be caused when contaminated water enters the body through the nose. Infection is rare, but nearly all cases of amoebic meningitis have been fatal.

Meningitis caused by other conditions such as cancer, lupus, certain drugs, head injury or brain surgery is called noninfectious meningitis.

You can get information on additional symptoms unique to each type of meningitis at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website ( meningitis/ index.html).

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your comments and column suggestions to