University of Iowa Health Science Relations and
Loreen Herwaldt, MD
Professor of Internal Medicine/Epidemiology
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
New reports of deaths caused by bacterial meningitis often raise
questions. This rare disease can be life-threatening, but it is
treatable and preventable if discovered early.
"Meningitis, in general, is an infection or inflammation of the
lining around the brain and spinal column," says Dr. Loreen Herwaldt,
associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa
College of Medicine and hospital epidemiologist with UI Hospitals and
It can be caused by bacteria, viruses, chemicals, or drugs but the
bacterial forms of the disease are most serious. Bacterial meningitis
and the bloodstream infections that accompany it require prompt
treatment with intravenous antibiotics. Viral meningitis is less
serious and can usually be treated with fluids, pain medication, and
Left untreated, bacterial meningitis and related bloodstream
infections can cause severe damage to the brain and other organs, or
death. That's why early recognition of symptoms is important,
Herwaldt says. "Symptoms include high fever, headache, stiff neck,
skin rash, and arthritis," she notes. "Anyone who has a headache and
high fever should see a physician or go to an emergency room
Meningococcal meningitis is one form of bacterial menengitis.
Though not highly contagious like the flu, meningococcal disease can
be transmitted by close contact. Many people carry the bacteria
without becoming sick, and most people are not at risk of getting the
disease unless they have close contact with someone who has it.
People under age 30 who have not already developed an immunity are
the most susceptible, especially those living in close quarters, such
as military barracks or college campuses and residence halls.
"Everyone who's had close contact with someone who has
meningococcal meningitis should see a physician for preventive
treatment, before they have symptoms," Herwaldt suggests. Common
preventive treatments are Rifampin and ciprofloxacin. There is also a
vaccine that is effective in preventing most types of meningococcal
meningitis. It is very safe and protects about 90 percent of those
who receive it. Immunity induced by the vaccine is usually effective
for three to five years.
If you have any of the symptoms of bacterial meningitis or have
questions about prevention or treatment, contact your physician.