How Do You Get Bacterial Meningitis?

Reviewed on 1/8/2021

What is bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis spreads from person to person contact. You can also get bacterial meningitis by eating food contaminated by certain germs.
Bacterial meningitis spreads from person to person contact. You can also get bacterial meningitis by eating food contaminated by certain germs.

Meningitis is a disorder where the meninges, a thin tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord, become inflamed. Bacterial meningitis is a rare form of the illness that can lead to serious complications like hearing loss, a stroke, or brain damage.

Bacterial meningitis can also damage other organs in your body. There’s still a lot that researchers are learning about the causes of bacterial meningitis.

Anyone can contract bacterial meningitis. Without timely medical intervention, bacterial meningitis can result in severe complications and even death. Early treatment is crucial.

People who may have an increased risk of contracting bacterial meningitis include:

  • Babies
  • People who gather in large groups, like college students
  • Individuals diagnosed with certain medical conditions
  • People taking specific types of medication
  • People who have recently undergone specific medical procedures
  • Those who work with pathogens that can cause meningitis
  • Individuals who travel to high-risk places like sub-Saharan Africa

Bacterial meningitis spreads from person to person contact. You can also get bacterial meningitis by eating food contaminated by certain germs.

Signs of bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis symptoms can appear immediately or take several days to develop. Most people end up showing signs of bacterial meningitis within three to seven days after exposure to a bacterium. Initial symptoms of meningitis in adults typically include:

Babies infected with bacterial meningitis may show symptoms like:

  • Slowness or lack of activity
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Head swelling
  • Constant crying
  • Poor feeding habits

Infants may also have a bulging soft spot on their head or exhibit abnormal reflexes. As the disease progresses, those infected can end up having seizures or falling into a coma if they do not receive treatment.

Causes of bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is caused by exposure to certain bacteria, including:

Doctors disagree about why some people contract bacterial meningitis after exposure to these bacteria while others don’t. Individuals can carry these germs on their bodies without ever getting ill and act as carriers who spread the disease to others.

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When to see the doctor for bacterial meningitis

Seek a doctor’s help if you have symptoms of the flu accompanied by neck stiffness or if you experience a sudden high fever or a severe headache.

You should also contact your physician if you or a family member have recently been exposed to someone with bacterial meningitis.

Children under the age of one are more at risk for exposure to bacterial meningitis. Teenagers and young adults between the ages of 16 and 21 are also at a higher risk for encountering one of the bacteria that causes bacterial meningitis.

There is a vaccine available to help prevent bacterial meningitis. Most children should receive this vaccine between age 11 and 12 and then receive a second booster shot at 16. 

You should check with your child’s doctor if you have questions about vaccinating yourself or your children. None of the available vaccines for bacterial meningitis are 100% effective. They do not offer protection against every kind of bacteria that can cause the condition.

Pregnant women should also seek advice from a doctor about getting tested for bacterial meningitis when they are 36 or 37 weeks pregnant. If a pregnant woman tests positive for bacterial meningitis, a doctor can give her antibiotics while she is in labor to prevent her from passing bacterial meningitis to her baby.

Diagnosing bacterial meningitis

If your doctor suspects that you have bacterial meningitis, they will typically perform a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, to collect a sample of the fluid around your spinal cord. They will then send the sample to a lab to confirm the presence of bacteria that can cause bacterial meningitis.

Your doctor will also ask you about your symptoms and perform a physical exam to better understand your current medical condition. They may also request additional diagnostic tests to confirm a bacterial meningitis diagnosis, including:

Treatments for bacterial meningitis

Doctors typically use antibiotics to treat bacterial meningitis infections. The antibiotics are given intravenously (into your vein) through a needle placed in your hand or arm.

Your doctor may also give you a medication called a corticosteroid to relieve symptoms of swelling and inflammation. Treatment also includes giving you plenty of fluids to keep you from becoming dehydrated.

Your chances of surviving bacterial meningitis increase by getting early treatment.

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References
CDC: "Bacterial Meningitis."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Bacterial Meningitis."

MedlinePlus: "Meningitis."

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