Meningitis can kill a child within 24 hours if left untreated. Doctors often mistake the disease for a common flu and unless they take the time to look carefully and test, the condition can be fatal. Almost 500 people, many of them children die each year.
Meningitis results from either a viral or a bacterial infection of the fluid in the spinal cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain. Knowing whether a particular case of meningitis results from a virus or a bacterium is important because of differences in the seriousness of the illnesses and the treatment needed. Viral meningitis, also called aseptic meningitis, is usually relatively mild, clearing up within a week or two without specific treatment. Bacterial meningitis is much more serious. It can cause severe disease that can result in brain damage and even death.
Early diagnosis and treatment are very important. Doctors can treat bacterial meningitis with a number of effective antibiotics. It is important, however, that patients begin treatment early. If not detected early, advanced bacterial meningitis can lead to brain damage, coma, and death. Survivors can suffer long-term complications, including hearing loss, mental retardation, paralysis, and seizures.
In persons over age two, common symptoms of bacterial meningitis are high fever, headache, and stiff neck. These symptoms can develop over several hours, or may take one to two days to develop. Other symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, confusion, and sleepiness. In advanced cases, bruises develop under the skin and spread quickly. In newborns and infants, the typical symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness may be hard to detect. Other signs in babies might be inactivity, irritability, vomiting, and poor feeding. As the disease progresses, patients of any age can have seizures.
Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), Neisseria meningitidis, and Streptococcus pneumoniae are the most common bacterial causes of meningitis. The bacteria often live harmlessly in a person's mouth and throat. In rare instances, however, they can break through the body's immune defenses and travel to the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. There they begin to multiply quickly. The thin membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord (meninges) then becomes swollen and inflamed.
Medical professionals make a diagnosis by growing bacteria from a sample of spinal fluid. A doctor obtains the spinal fluid through a spinal tap. A doctor inserts a needle into the lower back and removes some fluid from the spinal canal. Identification of the type of bacteria responsible for the meningitis is important for the selection of correct antibiotic treatment.
Anyone can get bacterial meningitis, but it is most common in infants and children.
There are vaccines against Hib, some strains of Neisseria meningitidis, and many types of Streptococcus pneumoniae. The vaccines against Hib are very safe and highly effective. By six months of age, every infant should receive at least three doses of an Hib vaccine. A fourth dose (booster) should be given to children between 12 and 18 months of age.
If you believe that you or a family member have suffered injury or you believe a family member has dies as the result of a physician's failure to properly diagnose or treat bacterial meningitis, contact a qualified attorney to determine whether you might have a viable medical malpractice claim.
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