Meningitis: Answers to frequently asked questions
Meningitis spreads the way other winter illnesses do, through secretions from the nose and mouth
What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the tissue around the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by a virus, by fungus or by bacteria, and it is usually spread the way other winter illnesses are spread — through secretions from the nose and mouth.
Many healthy people — an estimated 10 to 20 per cent of the population — carry the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease in their throat or nose with no symptoms.
The bacterial kind of meningitis is considered very dangerous and, in rare cases, can cause death quickly after the onset of symptoms. In other cases the infection can lead to amputation, hearing loss or brain damage.
There are nearly 200 cases of meningitis per year in Canada, on average. It's fatal in roughly one in 10 cases. Up to one-third of cases result in long-term disabilities.
What are the symptoms?
Meningitis can be hard to diagnose, and it can develop very quickly or over the course of a few days. The first signs will be a fever, headache and nausea.
After that, more distinctive symptoms may show up:
- a rash, typically on the arms and legs
- stiff neck
- joint pain
- cold hands and feet
- confusion and drowsiness
- sensitivity to light
If you see combinations of these symptoms, contact a doctor or call the provincial 811 health line right away. If no doctor is available, go to the emergency room. In the most serious meningitis cases, death can occur less than a day after fever appears. Early treatment is crucial.
How can you protect yourself from getting meningitis?
The disease is spread by direct contact with fluids, including by: kissing, sharing cutlery or glasses, sharing towels, and living in close quarters.
Good hygiene will help stop the spread, including:
- coughing and sneezing into your elbow
- washing your hands frequently
- disposing of used tissues properly
- not sharing drinks, food, water bottles, musical instruments or mouth guards, or anything else that comes in contact with the mouth.
People who have been in close contact with someone who is known to be infected can be treated preemptively with antibiotics.
Why are young people usually affected?
Outbreaks of meningitis have happened at schools, on sports teams, in school bands or orchestras, or on university campuses. The infection is spread by the kind of close contact that is built into most young people's daily lives, which is why they are vulnerable to it.
The disease can occur at any age, but those at highest risk include infants under one year of age and young people aged 16 to 23, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Is there a vaccine?
Nova Scotia children routinely receive vaccines against meningitis. The provincial schedule included meningitis C vaccination at 12 months of age and vaccination in Grade 7 against meningitis A, C, Y & W 135.
A meningitis B vaccine is available, but must be paid for out of pocket. No province or territory currently covers the cost of the $300 two-dose vaccine.
Sources: Centre for Disease Control; Meningitis Research Foundation of Canada; Public Health Agency of Canada
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