How Do You Actually Get Bacterial Meningitis?

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Sevin Philips, a 48-year-old California-based therapist and SoulCycle regular, died last week. Now public health officials have concluded that Philips' death was a result of a bacterial meningitis infection, a rare but serious condition in which membranes that protect your brain and spinal cord become infected. And you might be wondering: Could I be at risk?

Let's start with the basics. Although meningitis is most commonly caused by viruses, it can also be caused by bacteria, which is often far more serious. According to the Mayo Clinic, the classic symptoms include fever, headache, and a stiff neck. But you may also have flu-like symptoms (e.g. vomiting) and mental symptoms (e.g. confusion). In some cases, patients are left with permanent brain or hearing damage, but quick administration of antibiotics can treat the infection. And sadly, in a small amount of cases (about 15% in the U.S.) the infection is fatal.

So that's pretty scary! However, SoulCycle devotees don't need to panic: The company told NBC in a statement that, "While the rider did not contract the infection at our studio, we have nonetheless been in constant communication with the Department of Health which has emphasized that there is no evidence of any health risk to our riders." The studio also said it had disinfected the facilities and public health officials alerted about 200 people in the community. Here are a few more things you might want to know about this condition.
What causes bacterial meningitis?
As the name implies, bacterial meningitis is an infection caused by, well, bacteria. But more than one type of bacteria can cause meningitis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) it's most commonly caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae, group B Streptococcus, Neisseria meningitidis, Haemophilus influenzae, and Listeria monocytogenes in the U.S.

How do you get it?
Some of the bacteria that cause meningitis are spread via close contact from one person to another, especially in the form of saliva. That means that kissing or coughing may spread it, but casual contact (e.g. shaking hands) won't. In fact, as Matt Willis, MD, public health officer for Marin County told NBC Bay Area, “Close contact is usually defined as several hours of very close contact,” which is why those at the highest risk of becoming infected are people who live with someone who already has the illness.

Other meningitis-causing bacteria only strike when your immune system is already compromised or if you've had a recent trauma. And one type of bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes, can be spread through tainted food.

What can you do about it?
The best prevention we have is the meningitis vaccine. Although, as with any vaccine, this won't protect you in every case, it's definitely better than nothing. And basic healthy lifestyle habits (e.g. getting enough sleep, eating your veggies, staying active) can reduce your risk of being infected because they help keep your immune system working in top form, the CDC says.

If you think there's a chance that you may have bacterial meningitis, it's important that you get medical care quickly. The infection can be treated with antibiotics, but the longer it's left untreated the more likely it is that you'll develop serious complications, which may include brain damage.

So although you don't need to be afraid of your local SoulCycle, bacterial meningitis definitely deserves your concern.
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