Bacterial meningitis is one of the most serious forms of meningitis. Bacteria that cause meningitis often gain access to the CNS through the bloodstream after trauma or as a result of the action of bacterial toxins. Bacteria may also spread from structures in the upper respiratory tract, such as the oropharynx, nasopharynx, sinuses, and middle ear. Patients with head wounds or cochlear implants (an electronic device placed in the inner ear) are also at risk for developing meningitis.
Many of the bacteria that can cause meningitis are commonly found in healthy people. The most common causes of non-neonatal bacterial meningitis are Neisseria meningitidis, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and Haemophilus influenzae. All three of these bacterial pathogens are spread from person to person by respiratory secretions. Each can colonize and cross through the mucous membranes of the oropharynx and nasopharynx, and enter the blood. Once in the blood, these pathogens can disseminate throughout the body and are capable of both establishing an infection and triggering inflammation in any body site, including the meninges. Without appropriate systemic antibacterial therapy, the case-fatality rate can be as high as 70%, and 20% of those survivors may be left with irreversible nerve damage or tissue destruction, resulting in hearing loss, neurologic disability, or loss of a limb. Mortality rates are much lower (as low as 15%) in populations where appropriate therapeutic drugs and preventive vaccines are available.
A variety of other bacteria, including Listeria monocytogenes and Escherichia coli, are also capable of causing meningitis. These bacteria cause infections of the arachnoid mater and CSF after spreading through the circulation in blood or by spreading from an infection of the sinuses or nasopharynx. Streptococcus agalactiae, commonly found in the microbiota of the vagina and gastrointestinal tract, can also cause bacterial meningitis in newborns after transmission from the mother either before or during birth.
The profound inflammation caused by these microbes can result in early symptoms that include severe headache, fever, confusion, nausea, vomiting, photophobia, and stiff neck. Systemic inflammatory responses associated with some types of bacterial meningitis can lead to hemorrhaging and purpuric lesions on skin, followed by even more severe conditions that include shock, convulsions, coma, and death—in some cases, in the span of just a few hours.
Diagnosis of bacterial meningitis is best confirmed by analysis of CSF obtained by a lumbar puncture. Abnormal levels of polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMNs) (> 10 PMNs/mm3), glucose (< 45 mg/dL), and protein (> 45 mg/dL) in the CSF are suggestive of bacterial meningitis.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology