Meningitis awareness week begins this week and so I have collated some educational information about meningitis below. Awareness of the signs and symptoms are key in helping to prevent serious illness.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is inflammation of the meninges (which is the protective membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord). Meningitis can be caused by either a viral or bacterial infection. Meningitis often occurs alongside septicaemia (infection of the blood) especially when the infection is caused by the meningococcal bacteria.

Bacterial meningitis can be caused by a variety of bacterium. Children under 5 years of age and teenagers are at highest risk of contracting meningitis. Bacterial meningitis should be treated as a medical emergency as if left untreated it can cause brain damage, septicaemia and even death.

Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis. It is usually less serious than the bacterial form and most people make a full recovery.

What are the signs and symptoms to look for?

  • Severe headache
  • Vomiting
  • High temperatures (over 38C)
  • Neck stiffness (unable to touch chin to chest)
  • Drowsiness or confusion
  • Muscle aches and pains, stomach cramps and possible diarrhoea
  • Photophobia (unable to tolerate light, often burying head in pillows/ under blankets to get away from light)
  • Distinctive skin rash (non blanching i.e. if you roll a glass over the rash it does not fade). This rash is often dark red or purple. However, not everyone will develop this rash and it may be a late sign.

In babies and young children these symptoms may differ slightly. They may have less specific symptoms and may just be generally unwell with high fevers and increased tiredness. Alongside the symptoms listed above, signs to look in babies include:

  • Stiff body or limbs or may be very floppy. May have stiff jerky movements.
  • Irritable and do not like being picked up
  • Pale or blotchy skin
  • Cool hands and feet
  • Rapid breathing
  • Excessive crying (often moaning or different to their usual cry)
  • Off feeds and/or vomiting
  • Difficult to wake and sleeping far more than normal
  • Bulging fontanelle (the soft part on top of a baby’s head where the skull bones have yet to join can appear swollen)

These symptoms and signs often come on rapidly within a matter of hours. However, they may also occur over a few days.

IF YOU SUSPECT MENINGITIS OR SEPTICAEMIA GET HELP IMMEDIATELY

How is meningitis treated? 

  • Bacterial meningitis requires antibiotic treatment and usually hospital admission. In some cases treatment may need to be given in an intensive care unit.
  • Viral meningitis is treated with rest and pain relief (for the associated headaches) and usually resolves within 2-3 weeks.

What are the complications of meningitis? 

If recognized and treated quickly most children make a full recovery. Delays in treatment increase the risk of complications. A small proportion go on to develop problems after catching meningitis such as hearing loss, learning difficulties, epilepsy, joint or bone problems or kidney problems. The key to recovery is early recognition and treatment.

How can I prevent my child contracting meningitis?

There is a successful vaccination program in the UK that helps protect against many of the types of bacteria that cause meningitis. The MMR provides children with immunity against mumps which is a cause of viral meningitis in children. This vaccination is part of the routine schedule that all children are offered from birth. Please check with your health visitor or GP if you are concerned about your child’s vaccination program.
At present, however, there is no vaccination available to protect against meningococcal group B bacteria which cause the majority of cases of bacteria meningitis in the UK.

It is important to remember that meningitis is a relatively rare condition but it has potentially fatal consequences so should you be concerned that you or a member of your family might have meningitis you should seek help immediately.

Further advice, support and information: 

Of note, both the Meningitis UK and Meningitis Trust websites listed below have useful printable tools to help with symptom recognition and diagnosis.

Meningitis Research Foundatation
Tel: 01454 281 811

Meningitis UK
Tel: 0117 373 7373

Meningitis Trust  (24 hour helpline 0800 028 1828)

NHS direct Tel: 0845 4647

For pictures of meningitis rashes: www.dermnet.org.nz/bacterial/meningococcal-disease.html

References:

www.nhs.uk NHS choices – meningitis information prescription

www.patient.co.uk – meningitis and septicaemia.

Illustrated textbook of paediatrics 2nd ed. G. Clayden Mosby 2004

www.bbc.co.uk/health/physical_health/conditions/meningitis2.shtml

Disclaimer

The above content is for general information only and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or a health care professional. No responsibility can be taken for any diagnosis made by a user on the content of the above information. Always consult your own GP or other health care professional if you are in any way concerned about your health or that of a member of your family.