Meningitis means inflammation of the meninges, which are the linings that enclose the brain and spinal cord. It is a rare, contagious disease caused by viral or bacterial infection. It can affect people of all ages but babies, children under five years old, teenagers and young adults are particularly susceptible to the disease. It is more widespread during the winter months.

At first, the symptoms of meningitis are similar to those of flu. The symptoms may include any of the following:

Adults & Children

  • temperature of 38ºC or above
  • alternate bouts of shivering and hot sweats
  • vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • stiff neck
  • joint pains
  • sensitivity to bright lights
  • severe headache
  • feeling drowsy & weary
  • fits

Babies

  • temperature of 38ºC or above
  • cold hands and feet
  • refusing attention or fuss
  • vomiting
  • refusing to feed
  • arching the back and holding the neck stiffly
  • a floppy body
  • piercing crying or a feeble, whining cry
  • glazed expression
  • difficult to wake up if sleeping
  • pale and blotchy complexion
  • a tight or bulging top of the head (fontanelle or 'soft spot')

Certain bacteria which cause meningitis can also cause septicaemia (blood poisoning). Septicaemia causes tiny red or purple blood blisters to appear under the surface of the skin. These gradually get bigger until they look like bruises. Unlike many other rashes, the septicaemia rash does not fade or turn white when pressure is applied. Pressing a drinking glass against the skin is a good way to identify a septicaemic rash.

Causes

Meningitis can be caused by bacteria or viruses.

Viral meningitis is the most common form of meningitis but it is not usually life-threatening. Viruses can be released into the air when a person coughs or sneezes. These tiny airborne droplets circulate and can enter another person's body through the mouth, nose or eyes. Viruses can also be passed by close contact, for example shaking someone's hand after they have sneezed or wiped their nose and then putting your fingers in your mouth can spread the virus. Water contaminated with sewage can also carry the meningitis virus.

Bacterial meningitis is far more serious but is relatively rare in comparison. It is not as easily spread as viral meningitis but it can be passed on by close personal contact such as kissing or through coughing or sneezing.

Avoiding Meningitis

There is a meningitis vaccine available but it is only effective against certain types of the disease. It cannot be given to children under 18 months old. It lasts for three to five years.

Treatment

Suspected meningitis should be reported to a doctor immediately.

Antibiotics can only be used to treat bacterial meningitis. They work by destroying the bacteria which cause the disease. As a precautionary measure and due to the infectious nature of meningitis, a doctor may also decide to prescribe antibiotics for the close friends and family of someone with meningitis. Viral meningitis cannot be treated with antibiotics.

When To See A Doctor

A doctor or ambulance should be called immediately to anyone who develops any of the symptoms of meningitis.

Additional Information

For more information about meningitis, contact the National Meningitis Trust, Fern House, Bath Road, Stroud, Gloucestershire GL5 3TJ. Tel: 01453 751738. Fax: 01453 753588. Help-line: 0845 6000 800. E-mail address: support@meningitis-trust.co.uk. Website address: www.meningitis-trust.org.uk.

The Meningitis Research Foundation also offers help and advice and can be contacted on 01454 281811. They also have a website which can be found at www.meningitis.org.