BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – Experts say that over 1.2 million cases of bacterial meningitis are estimated to occur worldwide annually, and that approximately 600 – 1,000 people contract meningococcal disease each year.

Over the weekend, a well-known actress/director who helmed a Louisiana-based film in her final years passed away following a battle with viral meningitis.

Denise Dowse, pictured above on an episode of Castle, passed away August 13, 2022 at the age of 64 after battling meningitis. (Image Credit: Scott Everett White/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

This may lead some to wonder exactly what the condition is, what causes it, and how it’s treated.

A closer look at meningitis

Meningitis is an inflammation or swelling of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can be triggered by a bacterial or viral infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Bacterial meningitis is caused by several different types of bacteria and is often spread through close personal contact with others like coughing, sneezing, kissing. A person can also be infected after eating certain foods that have been contaminated with the bacteria. Healthline says babies and persons with weak immune systems are more likely to develop this form of meningitis. It should be noted that bacterial meningitis is serious and can be life-threatening

Though viral meningitis can also be spread from person to person, it is not typically life-threatening. The group of RNA viruses that cause viral meningitis can spread through direct contact with saliva, nasal mucus, or feces. This means a person can pick it up via the coughs or sneezes of an infected person. Additionally, arboviruses that cause viral meningitis can be transmitted through insects such mosquitos and ticks. But experts say that even upon becoming infected, it’s unlikely that the average person would develop meningitis as a complication.

Meningitis can also be triggered by injuries, cancer, certain drugs, and other types of infections.

In any case, when a patient is diagnosed with meningitis, one of their physician’s first tasks is to find out what caused the swelling, because this will dictate treatment options.

Image Credit: CDC

Additionally, there is a difference between meningitis, which is an inflammation or swelling of the protective membranes around the brain or spinal cord and meningococcal disease, which is any illness caused by a bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. The CDC says, “these illnesses are serious and include meningitis and bloodstream infections (septicemia).”

Essentially, it is possible for a person to have meningitis but not meningococcal disease and vice versa.

Symptoms of meningitis

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, bacterial meningitis symptoms strike suddenly and worsen quickly. This form of meningitis is typically serious as it can lead to brain damage, paralysis, or stroke.

The most common symptoms of bacterial meningitis are:

  • Painful, stiff neck with limited range of motion
  • Headaches
  • High fever
  • Feeling confused or sleepy
  • Bruising easily all over the body
  • A rash on the skin
  • Sensitivity to light

The initial symptoms of viral meningitis are quite similar to those that mark bacterial meningitis. But people with mild cases of viral meningitis usually get better on their own within seven to ten days. The CDC says initial symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Photophobia (eyes being more sensitive to light)
  • Sleepiness or trouble waking up from sleep
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy (a lack of energy)

Prevention and treatment options

According to Healthline, a person can reduce the risk of getting or spreading viruses and bacteria by taking the following precautions:

  • Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap. Wash for a full 20 seconds, taking care to clean under fingernails. Rinse and dry thoroughly.
  • Wash your hands before eating, after using the toilet, after changing a diaper, or after tending to someone who is ill.
  • Don’t share eating utensils, straws, or plates.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • Stay up to date with immunizations and booster shots for meningitis.
  • Ask your doctor about immunizations before traveling to countries with higher rates of meningitis.

But if a person has been diagnosed with either bacterial or viral meningitis, there are treatment options, which are detailed below.

Bacterial Meningitis

Johns Hopkins says that once someone is diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, prompt treatment is a must and can be life-saving. Once the type of bacteria has been identified, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics, which are typically administered intravenously. The physician may also provide the patient with a corticosteroid to help reduce inflammation and swelling. In addition to this, plenty of fluids will be administered to prevent dehydration.

Viral Meningitis

The CDC says, “In most cases, there is no specific treatment for viral meningitis. Most people who get mild viral meningitis usually recover completely in 7 to 10 days without treatment. Antiviral medicine may help people with meningitis caused by viruses such as herpesvirus and influenza.”

Healing and recovery

Thousands of people across the globe have been diagnosed with meningitis, and after a difficult experience of fighting the illness in a hospital, they return home to heal.

For example, a woman named Cadey from England shared her story with a website called Meningitis Now. Cadey says she was training as a student nurse when she suddenly found herself struggling through an onslaught of symptoms that included severe headache, vomiting, neck pain, and exhaustion.

She was diagnosed with viral meningitis, and hers turned out to be a severe case, which led to her hospitalization.

Cadey says, “I have since returned home but I’m still struggling with exhaustion and headaches. My studies and dreams of becoming a nurse have had to be put on hold and I have three young children… who I’ve needed lots of help with from my husband, family and friends, as I wouldn’t have managed without them.”

With the assistance of a capable medical team, the appropriate medications, and the help of friends or family, healing is possible.

Click here for more information about meningitis.