Is Your Stiff Neck Due to Meningitis?

Woman rubbing sore neck
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If you have a stiff neck or neck pain, particularly if it’s the type you get when you have the flu, it may be a sign of meningitis.

Meningitis symptoms can arise and do serious damage very quickly. In fact, once symptoms show up, almost 10% of those afflicted die, according to the World Health Organization.

This statistic includes people who did their due diligence by getting their symptoms checked early, as well as undergoing the right type of treatment.

So if you suspect even the slightest possibility that you may have meningitis, it's critical to seek immediate medical attention.

What Is Meningitis?

Let's define this potentially fatal disease.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the tissue that surrounds and protects ​the central nervous system. (The central nervous system is comprised of the brain and spinal cord.)

There are two types of meningitis: Bacterial and viral. The bacterial form of meningitis is the more deadly of the two, while the viral form is the more common.

There's no question that your doctor should be the one to diagnose your stiff neck and related symptoms; in fact, it's imperative. Just the same, arming yourself with information about the two types of meningitis and their risk factors may help you catch it early, which in turn may save your life.

Viral Meningitis Risk Factors

The CDC says that viral meningitis can affect people of all ages, but young children (under the age of 5) and those whose immune systems have been weakened by disease, medication or a transplant are at a higher risk.

The CDC also says that infants younger than one month and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to have a severe case of meningitis when they do get it.

Bacterial Meningitis Risk Factors

Bacterial meningitis is influenced by several things including your age, the strength of your immune system, where you've traveled recently, any surgeries you've had and if you've had pneumonia or recent or recurring sinus conditions.

 

The CDC also says that people who contract bacterial meningitis are at risk for septis, which is the body's all out infection fighting effort. Septis may result in serious organ and/or tissue damage, and even death.

Age as a Risk Factor for Bacterial Meningitis

Similar to viral meningitis, children are at the highest risk for bacterial meningitis of all the age groups. In this case, babies are the most vulnerable, with older people next. But, the CDC says, people of all ages can get bacterial meningitis.

This means that school age children, plus children who go to daycare — and their caretakers and teachers are all at risk due to their close proximity to one another during the day. Not only that, but it's highly likely that kids and their caretakers do a fair bit of sharing things that can spread the bacteria. These include eating utensils, tools, and air space.

If you (or your child) are a college student living in a dorm room, or you live in off-campus housing with a lot of other people, the risk is higher for you, as well. The CDC warns that infectious diseases tend to spread wherever large groups of people gather together. 

There are several strains of bacterial that cause this form of meningitis.

According to the CDC, each corresponds to two or more age groups, as follows:

  • Newborns: Group B Streptococcus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli
  • Babies and children: treptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), group B Streptococcus
  • Teens and young adults: Neisseria meningitidis, Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • Older Adults: Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), group B Streptococcus, Listeria monocytogenes

Meningitis vaccines are available — ask your family physician or inquire at your school’s student clinic for more information.

That said, a 2017 article published in American Family Physician states that despite the use of vaccines, the risk for death due to meningitis remains high.

Compromised Health and Meningitis Risk

The CDC says that some medical conditions and/or medications can increase your risk for bacterial meningitis. These include but are not limited to having had your spleen removed (or having been born without one,) or complement component deficiency, which refers to poor functioning of certain types of proteins in the body. Ask your doctor about these and other medical risks if you are unsure.

Less Common Risks/Types of Bacterial Meningitis

Along with the typical risk factors for which most of us should watch (i.e., of sharing air, tools, and utensils with infected people) a number of less common types of bacterial meningitis exist. They range from mumps related meningitis in children, to meningitis that may result from brain surgery, to a form of the disease called zoonotic. Zoonotic meningitis affects people who work or play extensively with animals, as well as people who live in areas where the bacteria can be found in animals.

Traveling to the Meningitis Belt

Traveling to Africa may increase your risk for meningococcal disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that there’s a meningitis “belt” consisting of 26 sub-Saharan countries — from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east — where the highest rates of this disease have been found. The CDC says that the dry season, in particular, is a risky time to be traveling in this area of the world.

Sources:

CDC. Meningococcal Disease: Risk Factors.

CDC. Viral Meningitis

CDC. Bacterial Meningitis

van Samkar, A., et. al.,. Zoonotic Bacterial Meningitis in Human Adults. Neurology Sept. 2016.

World Health Organization. Meningococcal Meningitis Fact Sheet