Meningitis is the inflammation of the meninges surrounding the brain and the spinal cord. These are the three membranous protective tissues of the central nervous system. The three meninges are the dura mater, the arachnoid mater and the pia mater. They are layered in such a way that they provide protection to the brain and spinal cord. Within the meninges circulates the cerebrospinal fluid which serves as a cushion to the brain and spinal cord from damaging shocks.
It is not an easy feat for harmful organisms and substances to pass through the blood-brain barrier to infect the brain by themselves. This is achieved through the cerebrospinal fluid within the meninges. When the harmful agents penetrate the meninges and into the cerebrospinal fluid, the CSF becomes infected. As the fluid circulates through the brain and the spinal cord, it deposits the organisms and substances that are capable of bringing injury to the central nervous system.
Meningitis is commonly caused by some viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. Since the meninges are very closely placed to the brain and spinal cord, any infection that affects them is considered life-threatening and therefore, treated as a medical emergency.
Syphilis and herpes simplex virus type 2 (genital herpes) are two sexually transmitted infections that elicit meningitis in the form of syphilitic meningitis and herpes meningitis, respectively.
Also known as meningeal syphilis, syphilitic meningitis is a lingering form of infection on the central nervous system elicited by syphilis in cases where the syphilis was left untreated. The bacteria that cause syphilis, known as the Treponema pallidum bacteria, is capable of progressively invading and infecting every part of the body when it is not treated or treated ineffectively.
One of the parts of the body infected by Treponema pallidum bacteria, as it spreads, is the central nervous system. It is known that the bacteria successfully makes its way into the body's nervous system within 3 to 18 months after a person has newly acquired syphilis. However, there will be no manifestation of infection in the central nervous system at that time until years after syphilis has existed in the body, even though there are damages taking place on the meninges of the brain and spinal cord gradually.
The damages at that point in time cause asymptomatic meningitis which is the inflammation of the meninges that do not show any physical symptoms. For this reason, when a person starts presenting with symptoms of syphilitic meningitis, physicians will be sure to certify that the syphilis infection was not newly acquired but had lived in the person for up to 10 years.
Neurosyphilis associated with the tertiary stage of syphilis has syphilitic meningitis as one of its major signs.
Symptoms of Syphilitic Meningitis
- A headache
- Stiff neck
- Inflammation of the spinal cord
- Irritation of the meninges
- Stiff shoulders
- Aversion to light and loud noise
- Difficulty waking up from sleep
- Sleepiness and feeling of tiredness
- Mental disorientation
As herpes simplex virus type 1 is linked with herpetic encephalitis so is herpes simplex virus type 2 also associated with herpes meningitis too. Herpes meningitis is a viral infection that arises as a result of the infection of the meninges by herpes simplex virus type 2.
Persons infected with herpes simplex virus type 2 or genital herpes through sexual contact are at a high risk of suffering from meningitis caused by herpes simplex virus. Besides, babies infected with genital herpes infection from their mothers during birth can get sick from herpes meningitis which most often leads to death.
Specifically, though, genital herpes infection has been established as the commonest cause of Mollaret's meningitis, a form of herpes meningitis that keeps going and returning with severe attacks which resolve as quickly as they come, without treatment.
Initially, the signs and symptoms of herpes meningitis are likened to those of syphilitic meningitis. The only difference is that meningitis caused by syphilis can cause more serious complications that could lead to the damaging of the brain, loss of hearing, and cognitive impairment.
As a note of caution, the degree of harm occasioned by untreated syphilis and herpes infection on both babies and adults is sobering enough to make routine screening a rudimentary part of life for sexually active pregnant and non-pregnant women.
It has also been hugely emphasized upon that initial infection with STDs hardly show symptoms unique to their nature. Therefore, expecting to be hit by symptoms when newly infected may not happen. Getting tested with or without any sign of ill-health makes treatment the much better option. Importantly too, these tests keep complications such as the inflammation of the meninges at bay.