Vail Daily column: Meningitis: Hard to diagnose, but very serious |

Vail Daily column: Meningitis: Hard to diagnose, but very serious

Dr. Drew Werner
Dear Doc
Vail, CO Colorado

When it comes to medical words there are a few that bring about feelings of fear and dread. They are ones we have all heard, and hope to never experience. They arouse emotions more than thoughts. But like driving a car, we don’t think of having an accident any more than experiencing one of these medical catastrophes. Likewise, despite the fear we have of them, they can be minor or severe, affecting us for a moment or changing our lives. There may be others on your list, but I immediately think of heart attack, stroke, cancer and AIDS. Today however, I’d like to add another word that a reader asked me to write about that’s less common, but no less significant: Meningitis. It has tragically touched our community. I write about medicine, and so, something often touches someone, but I would like to offer special thoughts, condolences and prayers this week to those who have lost a loved one to a medical tragedy.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges or covering of the brain and spinal cord. These meninges contain the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is the circulatory system of our central nervous system. Most forms of meningitis are infectious. Bacterial meningitis is the far more serious type and affects about three in 100,000 people each year, while viral meningitis affects about 10 in 100,000 people. in either case, 70 percent of meningitis strikes those below the age of 5 or over 60 years of age.

The early symptoms of meningitis are both unsuspicious and unspecific as a headache and fever. While that makes the early diagnosis difficult, bacterial meningitis can severely worsen over minutes to hours. Further symptoms include lethargy, seizures, confusion and the classic symptom – a stiff neck, referred to as nuchal rigidity. Treatment requires intravenous antibiotics, which are not always effective even if started early. On the other hand viral or aseptic meningitis may result in the same symptoms but does not respond to antibiotics and much more likely involves a full recovery. In either case, recovery is often followed by a prolonged period of mental slowness, headaches and lethargy.

There are several types of bacterial infections that cause meningitis in healthy children and adults. The type of infection varies with age, and fortunately immunizations are available for the most common types of bacterial meningitis. For young children a pneumococcal vaccine provides protection against the bacteria that causes 80 percent of meningitis. The H. Influenza vaccine (not to be confused with the viral influenza vaccine) is effective in preventing a serious form of meningitis from striking the very young. Older children, now starting at age 11, should be routinely vaccinated against the meningococcal bacteria, which is responsible for a serious form of meningitis in adolescents and young adults.

If a case of bacterial meningitis is documented, local health departments are involved and close contacts are often treated with a prophylactic medication to prevent infection after exposure. Those experts will let you know if you should be treated.

Like those other scary medical words, treat meningitis with the respect it deserves. As always, seek prompt medical treatment if you are worried or concerned that something is wrong.

I want to wish all of you the best of success, happiness and especially health in 2011.

Dr. Drew Werner is the vice chief of staff at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs and the Eagle County Health Officer. He lives in Eagle with his family. E-mail comments about this column to

Support Local Journalism