A story about viral meningitis

Me and my mom (2008)

Meningitis is no joke.

There are all sorts of things that can cause this nasty inflammation (swelling) of the membranes covering the brain, such as a bacterial or vial infection, injury, cancer, certain drugs, among other types of infection.

We have the Meningitis B Vaccine to protect against meningococcal group B bacteria-causing meningitis–a very nasty and potentially deadly form of meningitis. (Bacterial meningitis requires immediate medical attention.)

We also have several vaccines that can help protect from viral meningitis–an often less severe form of meningitis, however still very serious.

This is the story of when my mother contracted viral meningitis…

I was six when my mom contracted viral meningitis. Times were much different than they are now–medically and otherwise–so things would have been done differently today. But this is how it went:

My mom was a stay at home parent. My brother was two at the time, so between my six-year-old self and him, plus having a high anxiety personality, she was stressed a lot of the time.

One morning she woke up with flu-like symptoms. She had a fever, was very tired, and felt lethargic. A few days later she woke with a headache so bad she couldn’t stand or open her eyes.

But my grandmother–her mom–had pretty bad migraines so my mom just thought that maybe this was a migraine. She hadn’t had one before, but it was possible given her genetic background.

And then it got much worse.

“It was horrifying. I thought I was going to die it hurt so bad,” she says of the headache now.

She had had to get a sitter and have my aunt pick her up and take her to the doctor. The doctor looked into her eyes and immediately said, “this is no migraine.”

My aunt immediately took my mom to the hospital.

There they did a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) for diagnosis. This is when they insert a needle into the spinal canal low in the back to get cerebrospinal fluid for diagnostic tests.

This procedure can be very painful but my mom describes it as nothing compared to the throbbing headache meningitis causes.

After the procedure she was put in a dark room and left there. No one wanted to enter the room so she received very little care. She barely ate. And she was told nothing about her condition. All my mom could assume is she had something so contagious no one wanted to come in and no one could do anything. As far as she was concerned, she was dying. (Remember this was nearly thirty years ago.)

The test came back and she was told she had viral meningitis.

My mom was tested for lyme disease at the time but the test came back negative. She’s always wondered what virus caused her extreme sickness.

Viral meningitis can happen if infected with several types of viruses, however it is not common to develop meningitis when getting sick from a virus. Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis, which is a much worse form of meningitis.

We know today that non-polio enteroviruses are the most common cause of viral meningitis in the U.S. These viruses are common in the late spring to the fall, however it’s important to note that only a very small number of people who become infected with an enterovirus will develop meningitis.

My mom most likely contracted an enterovirus and became very sick due to her high stress level. (That’s just my guess.)

She spent several weeks in the hospital and then several months in bed at home.

After healing from the headaches, lethargy, and dizziness she resumed her everyday life. But she had very little energy for that first year and felt foggy and somewhat impaired most of the time.

It took a year before she was really herself again.

My mom has had memory issues and a twitching sensation in her eye ever since, but she feels lucky that she made it through with very little long-term health consequences.

Many people who contract viral meningitis aren’t so lucky. Long-term health effects include: Exhaustion, headaches, memory loss, anxiety, depression, dizziness/balance problems, hearing difficulties, personality changes, aching joints or limbs, sight problems, learning disabilities, speech and language problems, noise intolerance, and light aversion.

Other forms of meningitis have much worse fates. Bacterial meningitis can leave patients with brain damage, epilepsy, hearing loss, kidney damage, nervous system problems, scaring from skin grafts, and amputations.

And of course, all forms of meningitis can be fatal.

We have the meningitis B vaccine (prevents meningococcal group B bacterial meningitis) and several viral vaccines that can help keep viruses away that can lead to meningitis.

Just another reason to get vaccinated!