Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes (meninges) that surround the brain and the spinal cord. It is a serious disease requiring urgent medical attention, and there are a number of different strains and causes:
Viral meningitis is the most common form of the disease but it’s also the least serious and, although it can make people very unwell, it’s rarely life-threatening.
Bacterial meningitis, however, is very dangerous and can kill if it isn’t identified and treated quickly. It can be caused by a number of different bacteria, including several types of meningococcal bacteria which cause the strains known as Men A, B, C, W, X, Y and Z. These bacteria are also types that can cause sepsis (blood poisoning), and so sepsis can follow an initial bacterial meningitis infection as it spreads around the body.
Meningitis can affect anyone, though it is most common in babies, children and teenagers, as well as the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.
The viruses and bacteria that cause meningitis are spread from person to person through close physical contact like coughing, sneezing, kissing or sharing utensils and cutlery.
Healthy people can carry the bacteria in their nose and throat without actually getting the disease, and in fact most ‘carriers’ don’t actually get ill. Unfortunately ‘carriers’ can spread the bacteria to those who are more vulnerable to infection.
Although there are different types of meningitis, the most common symptoms to look out for include:
- Severe headache
- Dislike of bright lights
- Stiff neck
- Sleepy or unresponsive
Most people are aware of the classic rash associated with meningitis that doesn’t disappear when you press a glass firmly against it. However this is a late sign and an indication that meningitis has led to sepsis. So if you’re worried about meningitis don’t wait until a rash appears to seek help.
The rash typically starts off as small red pinpricks but these turn into red or purple coloured blotches as it spreads all over the body. It can be difficult to spot on darker skin so keep an eye on the palms, the soles of the feet or other paler areas.
If you see this rash you should seek urgent medical attention – it is a sign that sepsis has started and it can quickly be life-threatening.
If you spot any of the other signs, you should call for medical help and describe them carefully, saying that you suspect meningitis or sepsis. If you have been reassured by a professional once but the symptoms worsen, call again.
The symptoms of meningitis can appear slightly different in babies and could include:
- Refusing to feed
- A bulging soft spot on the head
- Having a stiff body
If you spot these symptoms you should seek medical advice immediately – and remember that not all of these signs will always be present.
There are a number of vaccinations available on the NHS that can protect against meningitis:
Men B is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in the UK and peaks in babies around 5-6 months of age. The Men B vaccination is currently recommended by the NHS for babies at 8 weeks, 16 weeks and one year.
Until July 2016, babies were offered a Men C vaccination at 12 weeks, but this programme has been so successful that the vaccination is no longer required and has been discontinued. All children are still offered a Hib/Men C vaccination at age 1 and the Men ACWY vaccination is offered to teenagers.
In recent years a deadly new strain of Men W has emerged, causing a spike of cases, particularly amongst young people. This new vaccine protects against Men W and three other causes of meningitis and sepsis, and is currently being rolled out to target teenagers and students. In the future this vaccine will be offered to 14 year olds as part of the routine schools vaccination programme.