Madison Small And The Threat Of Bacterial Meningitis

04/13/2015 05:56 pm ET

Eighteen-year old high school student Madison Small of Ashburn, Virginia is dead after a swift and unexpected bacterial infection, reported ABC News. Small, an accomplished softball player, complained of a headache on the evening of Monday, Apr. 6 and was taken to the hospital, according to local news station WJLA in the video above. She died the next morning.

On April 13, health investigators announced that she had died of bacterial meningitis, but said that her case was not part of a wider outbreak in the community.

Bacterial meningitis is rare but severe. The infection, which can be caused by several different strains of bacteria, produces inflammation in the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include nausea, fever, stiff neck and a headache -- which is what Small complained of -- as well as confusion and an increased sensitivity to light. Later symptoms of untreated meningitis include seizures and coma. Among the most serious complications are stroke, permanent brain damage and paralysis.

The infection is treated with antibiotics, which can reduce risk of death to below 15 percent. However, babies and the elderly are still at higher risk for death.

The bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis are found naturally in the environment and sometimes even on the body. Most of the time, they don’t cause any harm, but if your immune system becomes compromised or you’ve recently had another infection or a head injury, the harmful bacteria can find its way into your bloodstream and cause membrane inflammation. The people who are most at risk of contracting the infection are babies, toddlers, and adults who abuse alcohol. Adults with, as mentioned above, other infections -- most notably nose and ear infections -- or head injuries are also prone to infection. Some forms of bacterial meningitis can also be transmitted through close, prolonged contact with others such as kissing.

Symptoms generally set in about three to seven days after exposure to the microbes, although they’re not spread through casual contact like the common cold, or being in the same room as someone who also has the infection.

The best way to prevent bacterial meningitis is to get vaccines and additional booster shots, generally from ages 11 through 21 years, although some high-risk kids will get the shots earlier. Some colleges require that students get the vaccines before stepping foot on campus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends that anyone who fits these descriptions get what’s called the meningococcal vaccine to prevent infection:

  • You are a first-year college student living in a residence hall
  • You are a military recruit
  • You have a damaged spleen or your spleen has been removed
  • You have terminal complement deficiency
  • You are a microbiologist who is routinely exposed to Neisseria meningitidis (the causal pathogen)
  • You are traveling or residing in countries in which the disease is common.

There were about 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis resulting in 500 deaths every year between 2003 and 2007 in the U.S.

Also on HuffPost:

Meningitis Signs and Symptoms iPhone App
Suggest a correction