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Meningitis 101: What You Need to Know

Most everyone knows that meningitis is a disease, but do you really know what it is? It's one of those conditions that people hear about because of its rarity and potential severity, but unless you know someone who actually has it, you're likely uninformed. Here's what you need to know to recognize the symptoms of meningococcal disease in order to seek prompt treatment for yourself or a loved one.

What Is It?

The term meningitis refers to inflammation of the delicate tissues that surround the brain and spinal cord. These tissues, collectively called the meninges, consist of three protective tissue layers for your nervous system. They protect and cushion the brain and spinal cord from trauma.

When the meninges become inflamed because of a virus or a bacterial infection -- called meningococcal disease -- the swelling can damage the brain or lead to a stroke. However, timely treatment can reduce the chance of serious brain damage from the illness.

Meningococcal disease is more common in those with weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV and people who have an autoimmune disorder such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, infants under one year of age and adolescents who live in dormitories are most at risk of developing a meningococcal disease.


There are two basic types of meningococcal disease: bacterial and viral. Bacterial meningitis is caused by a group of bacteria called meningococci. Viral meningitis, meanwhile, can be caused by a variety of viruses, including influenza and pneumonia, but non-polio enteroviruses are the usual culprit. These very common viruses cause 10 to 15 million infections each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but most people do not get a meningococcal illness as a result of an enterovirus infection. Rarely, meningococcal infections are caused by a parasite or a fungus.


Meningococcal diseases may be misdiagnosed at first because their symptoms are similar to those of other illnesses, including the flu. Symptoms of a meningococcal infection include:

  • Sudden fever.
  • Stiff neck.
  • Headache.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Light sensitivity.
  • Confusion or an altered state of consciousness.

Whenever someone comes down with a high fever and a stiff neck at the same time, you should suspect a meningococcal infection.


There are vaccines available to protect against the most common types of meningococcal disease. The CDC recommends healthy adolescents receive one dose of meningococcal vaccine at age 11, with a booster dose at age 16. Children who were not vaccinated against meningococcal diseases should consider getting immunized before they move into a dormitory for college. In addition, adults who have weakened immune systems should discuss with their doctor whether or not they should get vaccinated against meningococcal diseases.

If you didn't know much about meningitis before, you should have a good idea now of how serious the disease can potentially be. Anything that affects the area around the brain and spinal cord is no laughing matter, and because the symptoms are not particularly distinguishable from more common conditions, it's so important to be aware and seek treatment.

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