Meningitis Explained

Reporter: Shannon Samson

Meningitis is an infection of the fluid tissues that surround the brain and spinal cord. Every year, there are a handful of outbreaks at colleges around the country because many students live in close quarters.

But it's not exclusive to that segment of the population and the disease can take on different forms. Leona Dillingham is feeling better now, but last month it was a different story. First, she had swollen glands, then an extreme headache and sensitivity to light. She says, "The next thing I probably noticed was the nausea with it, and the stiff neck and of course, I didn't know what it was."

It was meningitis. Lucky for her, it was the less serious type caused by a virus. The most serious form is caused by very common bacteria that live in the nose and throat. If they get into the bloodstream, they can spread to the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord and brain. Then they infect and inflame the meninges, the three membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, sometimes causing serious brain damage and hearing loss.

Why some people can fight off the bacteria and others can't is the subject of research. Some strains of the bacteria are simply more aggressive than others. David Schultz, M.D. is a family physician in Evansville. "Neisseria meningitis is a very aggressive type of organism that can cause bacterial meningitis in college students. It's a very aggressive meningitis that has a very fast course, often a very high fever that can often lead to blood infection or sepsis and even death."

That's why these symptoms should be taken seriously, especially if they're accompanied by a stiff neck. Vaccines are available for the pneumococcus bacteria for older adults and the meningococcal bacteria for teens entering college. There is no vaccine for viral meningitis, but Leona wishes there was. Her illness kept her in bed for two solid weeks. "I know I don't ever want to get it again."

Both viral and bacterial meningitis are spread by coughing, sneezing and kissing. Viral meningitis is also thought to be picked up through poor hygiene or polluted water. Leona thinks she got hers from a public swimming pool. That's why that form is more common in the summer. Bacterial meningitis is more common in the winter when people are sneezing more and spreading it.