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Pneumococcal Meningitis

What Is Pneumococcal Meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection and inflammation of the meninges. The meninges are the membranes that cover your spinal cord and your brain. Meningitis can be caused by:

  • bacteria
  • fungi
  • viruses
  • parasites

Most forms of meningitis are caused by viruses. Pneumococcal meningitis, however, is a bacterial form of meningitis. It’s a serious disease that can cause death even with proper treatment. See your doctor right away if you suspect you may have pneumococcal meningitis.

According to the Meningitis Research Foundation of Canada, up to 40 percent of people may carry the type of bacteria that causes pneumococcal meningitis in their nose or throat. However, it’s dormant in the vast majority of cases.

However, when this bacteria spreads to the meninges or its surrounding fluid, this infection is very dangerous. Even with speedy diagnosis and treatment, one in five people who develop this condition will die, according to the Meningitis Foundation of America. In addition, 25 to 50 percent of those who contract the disease will have long-term health issues.

Symptoms of Pneumococcal Meningitis

People typically develop symptoms one to three days after they were exposed to the bacteria. In some cases, the symptoms may develop sooner or later than that.

The symptoms of pneumococcal meningitis usually come on rapidly. An infected person may develop the following:

  • chest pain
  • chills
  • confusion
  • a cough
  • a headache
  • a high fever
  • vomiting
  • weakness

Other possible symptoms of this form of meningitis include:

  • agitation
  • irritability
  • rapid breathing
  • stiff neck

In infants, the soft spot on the head, which is called the fontanel, may bulge outward.

What Causes Pneumococcal Meningitis?

Pneumococcal meningitis can occur when the Streptococcus pneumonia bacteria invade the bloodstream, cross the blood-brain barrier and multiply within the fluid surrounding the spine and brain.

These bacteria don’t always cause meningitis. More commonly, they may cause other illnesses such as:

  • ear infections
  • pneumonia
  • sinus infections
  • bacteremia, which is a blood infection

How Is Pneumococcal Meningitis Transmitted?

Pneumococcal meningitis is transmitted from one person to another. The bacteria are spread through direct contact with the tiny droplets from an infected person’s mouth, throat, or nose. For example, if someone with the infection coughs or sneezes on or near you, you may contract the disease.

You can also contract the disease from an infected person by kissing or by sharing anything that comes into contact with the mouth such as:

  • a cup
  • a fork
  • a straw
  • a lipstick
  • a cigarette

Up to 40 percent of the population may carry Streptococcus pneumonia. In most of these people, the bacteria are dormant, which means they’re not actively growing and replicating. However, the bacteria can be transmitted even when it’s dormant.

Living in places where large groups of people tend to live, such as dormitories, can increase your risk for infection.

How Is Pneumococcal Meningitis Diagnosed?

Pneumococcal meningitis is generally diagnosed through a spinal tap. This involves your doctor collecting a sample of the fluid in your spine. By testing this fluid, your doctor can figure out whether you have pneumococcal meningitis.

Your doctor will also perform a physical examination when trying to figure out if you have pneumococcal meningitis. Signs and symptoms that point toward this condition include:

  • a fast heart rate
  • a fever
  • a stiff neck
  • vomiting

Treatment Options for a Pneumococcal Meningitis Infection

If you have pneumococcal meningitis, you’ll immediately be admitted to the hospital. You’ll then be treated with antibiotics. Ceftriaxone is an antibiotic that’s commonly used to treat this condition. However, it’s not the only option and is often used along with other antibiotics. Other possible antibiotics for bacterial meningitis include:

  • vancomycin
  • ampicillin
  • benzylpenicillin
  • cefotaxime
  • chloramphenicol
  • penicillin

What Is the Long-Term Outlook for People with Pneumococcal Meningitis?

This is a serious form of meningitis. Even with proper diagnosis and treatment, up to 1 in 5 people who develop this condition will die.

Long-term brain problems occur in 25 to 50 percent of people who survive meningitis. These problems include:

  • brain damage
  • deafness
  • learning disabilities
  • paralysis

Because this disease is so dangerous, it’s very important to go to the doctor right away if you suspect you have it.

Vaccines to Prevent Pneumococcal Meningitis

There are two vaccines available to protect against different types of pneumococcal meningitis.

These vaccines are usually recommended for:

  • children under 2 years old
  • adults age 65 or over
  • older children and adults at high risk for the disease

People who smoke or have asthma may also be candidates for the vaccine.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Gretchen Holm
Medically reviewed on: Jan 27, 2016: Jeanne Morrison, PhD, MSN

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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