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A meningitis heads-up

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A third grader at Skippack Elementary School in Collegeville has been diagnosed with a meningococcal infection, the bacteria that can lead to meningitis—and this just two days after a Drexel University student succumbed, shaking both schools to the core and prompting a doubling down on cleaning efforts and other preventative measures.

So what exactly is meningitis? It’s an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) surrounding the brain and spinal cord that’s usually caused by a viral infection, less so a bacterial or fungal infection. Fortunately, viral meningitis is not as serious the bacterial form, which can be fatal. The type, though, can only be determined by undergoing spinal fluid testing.

As for the risks of contracting meningitis, it’s spread only through direct contact, such as sharing food, drinks, and utensils, along with kissing or being coughed or sneezed upon directly. If concerned, here are the general signs and symptoms to look for, depending on the type of infection and one’s age:

  • Sudden high fever
  • Severe headache that isn’t easily confused with other types of headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Vomiting or nausea with headache
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Seizures
  • Sleepiness or difficulty waking up
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Lack of interest in drinking and eating
  • Skin rash in some cases, such as meningococcal meningitis

Should the infection end up as bacterial meningitis, these are its “hallmark” signs:

  • A severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • Purple spots on the wrists, ankles, armpits, and groin

Bottom line: It can take between several hours and a day or two for these indicators to appear. Regardless, once noted, call your physician or dial 911 right away, so that an antibiotic—usually Rifampin--can be administered right away. Delaying increases the odds of permanent brain damage and death.

Your best bet, however, is, as usual, prevention, so:

  1. Cover your mouth with your arm when coughing or sneezing.
  2. Avoid sharing utensils, cups/glasses, food, and drinks.
  3. Wash your hands frequently as well as using alcohol-based hand rubs.
  4. Eat well and get plenty of exercise and rest.

Now you know.

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