Meningitis

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Meningitis is scary—and confusing. For instance, if Fred says that he has meningitis, it sounds like he’s saying he’s infected with a germ called meningitis. But, there is no germ called “meningitis.”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that we tend to use that term loosely for what should be called “meningococcal disease.”

Meningococcal disease causes meningitis, and it may also cause blood poisoning (septicemia).

What Is Meningitis?

Our brains and spinal cords are protected by three layers of tissues, one on top of the other, along with a thin river of fluid that runs between the middle and bottom layers. That river, the cerebrospinal fluid, helps the tissues cushion the brain and spinal cord. It also brings in food and takes out trash from the brain.

These tissues that protect our brains and spinal cords are called membranes, or meninges. The whole setup is similar to a hand in a baseball glove; the hand and wrist are the brain and spinal cord, and the layers of the glove are the meninges.

When Fred says that he has meningitis, he’s saying his meninges, those tissues layered over his brain and spinal cord, are swollen or inflamed.

This swelling usually causes symptoms that are typical and a tip-off that a person is suffering from meningitis. Those symptoms include fever, a stiff neck, and a severe headache.

There are other symptoms that may be happening, but those three are the most common.

Lots of things can cause meningitis, and they’re not all germs. But the cause of most concern is bacteria.

When certain bacteria, such as Neisseria meningitidis, cause meningitis, it’s called bacterial meningitis.

The bacteria can get into the bloodstream, cross the blood-brain barrier, and cause meningitis, as described above. They get into the river, the cerebrospinal fluid, and multiply like crazy, spitting out poison. The tissues react to the poison by becoming swollen and inflamed. If it gets bad enough, the swelling may cause seizures, or even brain damage.

What Is Blood Poisoning?

When bacteria such as Neisseria meningitidis get into the bloodstream, they can cause septicemia, or blood poisoning.

The poison released by the bacteria into the bloodstream makes the immune system wake up and start fighting. This war between the bacteria and the immune system can cause inflammation, or sepsis, which in turn can cause blood clots, and it may stop oxygen from getting to the organs. If this happens, the infected person may lose limbs, organs, and sometimes, his or her life. This can happen within hours of initial infection.

How To Prevent Meningococcal Disease

The bacteria that cause meningitis, and possibly septicemia, can spread in many ways, including through a kiss or a cough, a sneeze or a sip on a shared straw.

To avoid infection, we do the same things we do when we’re trying to avoid influenza.

  • Wash our hands.
  • Keep our hands off of our nose, mouth, and eyes.
  • Don’t share items like food, forks, lipstick—anything that can transfer germs from another person’s mouth to our own.
  • Get immunized. There are several germs that cause meningococcal disease, and luckily, there are several vaccines to protect us. Ask your provider which vaccines are appropriate for your age and immunization history.
  • Keep our immune system strong by doing all those things we hear about: exercise, eat healthy, and get plenty of sleep.
  • Be responsible and cover our coughs and sneezes. We don’t want to spread infections that we may have.

There are certain groups that are at greater risk of becoming infected with meningococcal disease: those living in close quarters with large groups of people, such as youth campers, dorm residents, or military barrack inhabitants; individuals whose immune systems are compromised; travelers to regions where meningococcal disease is common; or people exposed to others who are currently infected and infectious.

The harm that can come from this infection is so great, it’s simply not worth the risk. We all need to get ourselves and our loved ones in to see our provider for vaccination against this truly horrible disease.


Our special thanks to the following organizations for their assistance with this project.


Information is the power
parents have over disease.