Cryptococcal meningitis is a fungal infection of the membranes that cover the spinal cord and brain, called the meninges; these membranes protect the central nervous system. The fungus that causes the infection is widespread throughout the world, but the rate of infection is quite low because most people's immune systems can protect them from contracting the infection. Immunocompromised individuals, such as those with AIDS, are susceptible to the fungal infection because their immune systems lack the functionality to prevent infection. Cryptococcal meningitis is a very serious infection that is fatal in many cases, though correct and timely treatment does substantially lower the likelihood of death.
The fungus responsible for causing cryptococcal meningitis is called Cryptococcus neoformans and is very common in soil. An immunocompromised individual who inhales dust containing the fungus may contract the infection. It may also be contained in bird droppings that mix in with the soil; the infection can be contracted from this source in the same way.
Many different symptoms may indicate the presence of cryptococcal meningitis; these include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, and light sensitivity. Hallucinations and altered mental states are also possible symptoms. It can sometimes be difficult to diagnose the infection because many of these symptoms are similar to those caused by HIV treatments. To check for cryptococcal meningitis with certainty, a doctor will perform a lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap. Various tests performed on the spinal fluid can be used to determine with relative certainty whether or not one has the infection.
Cryptococcal meningitis is generally treated with antifungal medications, though the specific treatment may vary based on whether or not the infected individual has a compromised immune system. The main component of the treatment is usually intravenously-delivered Amphotericin B. While Amphotericin B is an effective antifungal medication, its side effects can be quite severe. Many people experience an acute reaction consisting of high fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, weakness, and several other unpleasant conditions shortly after the drug is administered. If Amphotericin B treatment is continued for an extended period of time, organ damage, particularly kidney damage, is possible.
It is often necessary to continue treatment for quite some time in immunocompromised individuals. If cryptococcal meningitis is not entirely eradicated from one's system, the infection may recur after treatment has ended. Extended treatment, then, may be necessary to prevent the infection from coming back.