Meningitis is an inflammation of the tissues called the meninges that surround the spinal cord and brain. In addition to viruses, various types of bacteria can also cause meningitis. According to the Meningitis Research Foundation, about 50 types of bacteria can cause meningitis. The most common cause is meningococcal bacteria.
Bacterial meningitis is often life-threatening and can quickly lead to sepsis. Sepsis occurs when the infection spreads into the bloodstream. Chemicals released to fight the infection trigger an inflammatory reaction. The result of the inflammatory response causes a host of physiological changes that can lead to multiple organ damage and failure.
Unfortunately, because of the speed in which bacterial meningitis can progress, even a slight delay in a diagnosis can be deadly or lead to catastrophic brain and spinal cord injury. Children may especially be at risk for a missed or delayed diagnosis. Young children and babies can not state some of the signs. Also, some symptoms of bacterial meningitis may mimic other conditions.
Symptoms of Meningitis
It’s essential to know the symptoms of bacterial meningitis. Recognizing symptoms quickly may be lifesaving. Symptoms of meningitis in adults and children may include the following:
- Red or purple spots or rash
- Muscle pain
- Stiff neck
- Severe headache
In babies and toddlers, the following symptoms may also be present:
- Rapid breathing
- Poor feeding
- Bulging fontanels (soft spot on the head)
- Unusual cry
Treatment of Meningitis
Bacterial meningitis requires urgent treatment including intravenous antibiotics. The particular type of antibiotics and regiment depends on the age of the patient diagnosed with the condition:
Additional medications may be needed to decrease symptoms of shock and brain swelling. The specific antibiotic depends on the bacteria present. Quick meningitis treatment often prevents complications, such as sepsis and neurological damage.
Unfortunately, the ordering and administration of antibiotic therapy are sometimes unreasonably delayed, leading to catastrophic consequences. The medical literature has discussed common reasons for delay of antibiotic therapy, especially in pediatric (child) patients:
Missed Diagnosis of Meningitis
Meningitis can be misdiagnosed, especially in young children and babies. Many of the symptoms of bacterial meningitis are overlooked in children and babies. For example, symptoms, such as a stiff neck and headache can be difficult to recognize in an infant.
In people of all ages, bacterial meningitis can be misdiagnosed as viral meningitis or even strep throat, which causes a delay in the appropriate treatment. Diagnosis might be delayed due to a failure to recognize symptoms or order the appropriate diagnostic tests.
People suspected of having meningitis need a lumbar puncture performed. The puncture involves collecting cerebrospinal fluid from the spine and testing it to confirm a diagnosis. Delaying a lumbar puncture often results in a worse prognosis.
Bacterial meningitis can progress so rapidly that even if a diagnosis is delayed a few hours it can affect survival rates. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases, the mortality rate from bacterial meningitis increased by 12 percent for every hour the diagnosis was delayed.
Complications and After Effects of a Misdiagnosis of Bacterial Meningitis
It’s clear from the research that a delay or misdiagnosis increases the chances of death. If a patient is misdiagnosed, the wrong treatment may be prescribed, which may make symptoms worse.
Serious complications of bacterial meningitis can also occur. Complications are more likely to develop in people who become septic. In many cases, severe effects can develop within a few hours after symptoms start. Complications may include:
- Brain damage
- Organ failure
The following illustration shows a comparison of a normal brain and spinal cord vs. one afflicted with bacterial meningitis:
For those who survive, recovery can be long. After effects can include the following:
- Learning problems
- Limp loss
- Hearing loss
- Speech problems
Long-term recovery can take a long time. In some instances, the damage is permanent. Depending on the complications, treatment, such as physical, speech and occupational therapy may be needed. The length of time a person requires rehabilitation and therapy varies. But it’s not uncommon for treatment to be ongoing for several months.
Keep in mind; not all cases of bacterial meningitis are deadly. Many people recovery without lifelong complications. But a quick and accurate diagnosis plays a vital role in prognosis. When a diagnosis is delayed or missed, the chances of complications, permanent damage, and death are increased.
If you, your child or other loved one has suffered from a failure to diagnose bacterial meningitis, we may be able to help. Our top-rated attorneys are available for a free consultation. Please call our office at 312-698-3694.