Monday, 26 November 2012


If you follow science news at all, you probably know that the US just went through a meningitis outbreak. A number of people went to their doctor, seeking medication for back pain. They were given medication...but the medication was contaminated with a fungus. The fungus caused an infection called meningitis. More than 400 people got sick, and over 30 people died. The source of the infection has been found, the outbreak is under control, and the pharmacy responsible for the contaminated medication is closed and under inquiry.

Meningitis is a deadly disease, and right now over 30 families are grieving because of a completely preventable outbreak. But meningitis affects thousands of people every year - between 5 and 100 out of every 100,000 people, depending on where in the world you happen to be. You can't always point at a pharmacy and yell, "How dare you! You must pay!" Even without contaminated medication, it's still possible to catch meningitis.

But what is meningitis? And what do you do if you think you or someone you know has meningitis?

That's's time for another helping of NEURO FIRST AID...the blog segment where I talk about life-threatening brain illnesses and injuries. What they are, how to recognize them, and what to do.


The meninges. (From Wikipedia.)
Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges...which means nothing unless you know what meninges are. The meninges are protective layers of tissue that surround the brain and spinal cord. Along with the skull and cerebrospinal fluid, they help protect your brain from injuries. You have three meninges. Starting from the skull and moving towards your brain, you have:

Dura mater (the TOUGH layer): The outside layer is very tough. If you ever have to do a brain dissection and your teacher tells you to remove the dura mater, prepare for grueling battle. Seriously, it's a pain. But that's a good thing, because you want something that tough and stubborn protecting your brain. (The word "dura" means "tough" in durable.)

Arachnoid mater (the SPIDERWEBBY layer): The arachnoid mater is like a soft, fibrous mattress. All the fibers make it looks like a spider web (hence the name "arachnoid", which means "spider").

The dura mater and arachnoid mater surrounding and protecting the spine. You can't see the pia mater or subarachnoid space in this picture, but they're there, below the arachnoid mater. (From Wikimedia Commons.)

<<<Extra level>>> The subarachnoid space: This is a space between the meninges which is filled with cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF. Bored? Feel like making a mess? Try this activity, in which you get to smash eggs for science. The activity teaches about how the cerebrospinal fluid protects your brain.

Pia mater (the SOFT layer): The pia mater just wants to hug your brain. It cuddles up close, following all those folds (the gyri and sulci) so tight that it's hard to tell where the pia mater ends and the brain begins. Dissecting the pia mater is even more difficult than dissecting the dura mater. The pia mater just won't let go, it loves your brain too much. It's also full of blood vessels, which keep oxygen and nutrients flowing to your brain.

Okay, those are your meninges. And if you have meningitis, your meninges are being attacked by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. Meningitis happens when the meninges become inflamed, which means that they swell up. If your meninges swell, they press on the brain and spinal cord. When that happens, the meninges are transformed from something protecting the brain into something killing the brain.

Which leads us to the really important part...HOW TO RECOGNIZE MENINGITIS AND WHAT TO DO:


Here are some of the symptoms of meningitis. Not all symptoms are present in all cases. When in doubt, call 911 (or the emergency number for your country).
  • Severe headache
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Rash (particularly with bacterial meningitis). Press a drinking glass to the rash. If the rash turns white, you're okay. But if the rash stays red, CALL 911. Bacterial meningitis is very dangerous and develops quickly, so watch out for that rash.
  • Inability to tolerate light or sound
  • IN CHILDREN: Irritability or drowsiness
Watch for the symptoms of meningitis. (From Dublin City University health services)

All of these symptoms can be associated with other things. For instance, people having migraines (which is a type of bad headache) usually can't stand light or sound. No prizes for guessing what "flu-like symptoms" can be mistaken for. The neck/fever/confusion combo is usually a good indicator of meningitis...but you can have meningitis without having these three symptoms. Keep an eye out for that rash! Remember that rule of thumb: If you aren't sure, call the paramedics (that's 911, or the emergency number for your country).

Aside from calling your doctor, not much.

How serious the meningitis is depends a lot on what causes the meningitis. Bacterial meningitis = very, very bad; call 911 (hint: rash that stays red when pressed on). Viral meningitis usually goes away on its own. Bacterial meningitis develops quickly. Fungal meningitis (like the one caused by the contaminated medication) takes a couple of weeks. You'll need to see a doctor to know for sure.

Meningitis can be fatal. Know the signs, call a doctor, and you could save a life.


  1. Bacterial Meningitis is very deadly. Its infection can lead patient to death in merely few hours. USA and UK has developed medical systems that can save a patient from deadly Bacterial Meningitis. But recovery comes with many side effects such as brain loss, hearing loss and many other possibilities.

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