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I got meningitis by following doctor’s orders


Chart by Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

How I got Drug-Induced Aseptic Meningitis by following doctor’s orders, a cautionary tale.

The last thing I expected when I went into the emergency room at Danbury Hospital for a viral infection was to end up getting meningitis in the process and getting even sicker. The sad thing is, it was avoidable.

How this all began. Shortly after a family gathering this past Easter I came down with what I called a bad case of the “flu.” You know the drill — nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc…  I thought I could ride it out a few days. My husband got it too, so did my in-laws. They were sick a few days and then gradually got better. But I wasn’t riding it out well. Sorry for the graphic description, but I was coughing up “mud” on a continuous basis, and was getting severely weakened and dehydrated.

So it was off to Danbury Hospital. The ER doctor said they were flooded by “Upper GI” cases from Easter, and filled me with an IV full of fluid and pain meds. To play it safe he took some blood/urine for testing. I left feeling better from the influx of water and after one more day of rest I was back to work.

What happened next. I got a phone call the next day from the ER telling me one of my tests showed I had a bacteria infection and the doctor was prescribing antibiotics to nip it in the bud. Following doctor’s orders I picked up the prescription and starting taking the large white pills known as Sulfamethoxazole Trimethoprim, aka Bactrim. A powerful antibiotic, Bactrim is effective for urinary tract and middle ear infections, and bronchitis. I had never taken it before.

Round two. After several days, I started getting sick again. I had nausea again and even worse symptoms. I developed a nasty fever, logging in at 102.3 degrees, weakening me into a state of corpse-like lethargy. Along with the fever came uncontrollable chills — I was simultaneously overly hot and shivering cold. I also had a throbbing, pounding headache that spread from my temples down the side of my neck. I was sensitive to light and had to draw the shades because sunlight made me dizzy. I had zero energy, and my mind turned to mush. As a newspaper editor, I had a couple stories in the works for the front page that I couldn’t finish because I couldn’t put the words together. Just looking at the computer screen sent my confused mind into a tailspin. My initial thought was the “flu” had turned into something more, pneumonia perhaps?

Drug-Induced Aseptic Meningitis. So, it was back to Danbury Hospital. My husband took the day off from work to take me to the ER. The doctor this time round was one of the quietest I’ve ever seen. Very soft spoken, very gentle (very young). After asking about my symptoms, and noting I was taking Bactrim, he seemed to have a good idea what was wrong. He gave me an IV with fluid and pain meds, and then I did the only thing that gave me any relief — with the lights turned off in the ER, I slept. When the doctor returned he said I had Drug-Induced Aseptic Meningitis, caused by the Bactrim. What the heck? Meningitis? Caused by antibiotics?

Aseptic meningitis is an illness characterized by serious inflammation of the linings of the brain, and is one of the potential side effects of Bactrim (Ibuprofen can cause it too in some people). The doctor said I had classic textbook symptoms of aseptic meningitis — fever, chills, headache, nausea, light sensitivity, mental confusion.

While aseptic meningitis can be severe and life threatening, fortunately my case wasn’t that extreme. When the Bactrim was out of my system, he said, the meningitis would eventually go away.

It’s been six days since that diagnosis. My fever broke a few days ago, and I finally can look at the computer and write again. I still have a headache, but the severity has lessened. I welcome the warmth of fresh sunlight. Today, I am going to work from home and will return to my office tomorrow.

Lessons learned

  1. Bactrim (Sulfamethoxazole Trimethoprim) is strong stuff. Many people are allergic to it. When you have an infection, taking Bactrim is like using a Howitzer to attack it, when a pistol might do. For some people, Bactrim can cause aseptic meningitis. If you are prescribed Bactrim, think twice, and ask your doctor about side effects and if a milder antibiotic might work.
  2. When I make a mistake in my job, such as quoting someone incorrectly or making a typographical error, I apologize and run a correction. I never heard from the doctor who prescribed me the Bactrim and don’t expect to. But wouldn’t it be nice if he took a minute and called and said he was sorry I had such a bad reaction to the drug, and would refer to this case when considering Bactrim for future patients.
  3. In addition to the pain and suffering I endured from the aseptic meningitis, there were other costs. I have a hefty ER bill, my husband had to take a day from work, I missed a number of days from my job and couldn’t attend personal events I had planned last week.
  4. I have great co-workers who helped me get my paper to press last week. Bless them! And bless my husband and daughter for getting me broth and ice pops and helping me with my recovery.

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10 thoughts on “I got meningitis by following doctor’s orders

  1. Ellen Mokler on said:

    Gee, PJ! I’m so sorry you went through so much pain & suffering over the past weeks! Sounded terrifying! Why you!?!?!? I know you are a good patient. So glad Jerry & Katie were there to take care of you and you are on the up & up! Take it easy; maybe the Sox will win one for you!! (Does this mean you missed opening day?)

  2. Dear Patty~ Yikes. That was a horrible experience for you.
    Glad you have come out okay too. So sorry.
    I’m now allergic to Bactrim too, (part of the so called sulphonamide, sulfa drugs or sulpha drugs).
    Had a long series of UTI’s for which lots of different sulfa drugs were prescribed, which then turned into an allergy.
    Antibiotics… Good when they save your life; but they can go horribly wrong when not carefully prescribed.

    Wishing you all the best,

  3. Natalie Williams on said:

    This just happened to me last week! Glad to read i’m not the only rare case.

  4. Dear Patricia, I found your article while researching causes of Aseptic Meningitis, and low and behold, Bactrim. I too was prescribed Bactrim one year ago (March 2019) to treat inflammation in one of my nostrils. After a few days of taking the medication, I eventually succumbed to 103+ temperatures. This caused immediate concern and I drove myself to the hospital. Once there, I endured an incredibly painful lumbar puncture (spinal tap), and a hospital stay of 5 days. What’s even worse, is that I unknowingly developed a blood clot in my leg during my hospital stay, that eventually led to myself suffering a Pulmonary Embolism 3 weeks later. According to the treating physicians, the PE not only damaged part of my left lung, but almost led to cardiac arrest / death. The pain during my PE was so sever that Morphine wouldn’t suffice, I was given Fentanyl. Another 5 days in the hospital. When all said and done, both hospital stays tallied $42,000. Scary thing is, I’m a healthy man. Age 48, 6’1, 165 lbs, run 10ks often.

    I could have died from taking Bactrim. All that for treating nasal inflammation.

    • Wow, Ray, what a story, you are lucky to be alive. I wish doctors would think twice about prescribing Bactrim. It nearly killed you. Did you happen to get any apologies?

      • Surprisingly, I never even thought about an apology. I just thought it was a freak incident. However when I read your original post, not only was I shocked to read that Bactrim was the factor behind your story, but that the drug has impacted many lives. And to answer your question, my PCP had a look of shock when I saw him following hospital visit #1, he just shook his head in disbelief. Same following hospital visit #2. (the one that nearly killed me) No apology following either event.

        After a little research, I see that the maker of Bactrim is Roche Pharmaceuticals (Swiss) If you Google a little, you’ll also see that one of their drugs Acterma was responsible for approximately 1,100 deaths across the United States. And, if you Google just a little more, you’ll also see that that same drug (Acterma) is currently being used in China for treatment of ……… Coronavirus.

        I’m so sorry Patricia to read about your painful ordeal in 2016. Sadly, many of us are at the mercy of doctors and pharmaceuticals.

      • You’ve been through hell and back, Ray. I’m rather outraged that the medical community does not to take responsibility when poor decisions are made that can destroy a person’s life. What you said about Acterma is downright scary! I wonder how many people will die from it rather than the virus itself. Whoooo.

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