What is Meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection that occurs in the meninges – the membranes which protect the spinal cord and the brain. Although it is most common in children, adults are also susceptible to the disease especially if they have not received a meningitis vaccine. Viruses and bacteria are the main meningitis causes and the cause of meningitis will usually determine how serious it is. There are two types of meningitis:
• Viral meningitis – this is the most common form of the disease and thankfully the least serious. This form of meningitis is much more prevalent in children and often occurs during the summer months.
• Bacterial meningitis – this is an uncommon form of the disease however it can be fatal if left untreated. It is most commonly found in children under the age of 5 and teenagers aged between 15 and 19. There is currently a vaccination available to prevent this form of meningitis.
Symptoms of Meningitis
Due to the seriousness of bacterial meningitis, it is vitally important to be aware of the signs of meningitis and seek urgent medical treatment if you or your child are suffering from it. Meningitis symptoms vary depending on the type. The symptoms of viral meningitis include:
• Mild flu-like symptoms
• A Fever
• Muscle or joint aches
• Nausea and vomiting
• A sensitivity to light
The symptoms of bacterial meningitis vary depending on the stage of the disease. The early warning signs of bacterial meningitis include:
• Unusually cold feet or hands
• Pain in the joints and muscles
• Blotchy or pale skin
• Blue lips
• Similar symptoms to that of viral meningitis
If a fever accompanies any of the above symptoms of meningitis it is vitally important to phone for an ambulance immediately. As bacterial meningitis gets worse the symptoms include:
• Fits and seizures
• A red or purple blotchy rash that does not fade when a glass is pressed against it. This is an indicator that blood poisoning (septicaemia) is occurring.
• Light sensitivity
• Rapid breathing
• A stiff neck
The signs of meningitis are also different in babies and very young children. Symptoms of meningitis in children under the age of 5 include:
• Unusual crying
• Becoming unresponsive and floppy or stiff and jerky
• Not wanting to be held
• Pale blotchy skin
• A loss of appetite
• A reluctance to wake up
• A staring expression
If the meningitis is in its early stages, there is no way to tell whether it is the viral or bacterial form of the disease without clinical tests. For this reason, every case of suspected meningitis should be treated as an emergency until the disease is ruled out.
The treatment for meningitis will vary depending on the type. Viral meningitis may or may not require a hospital stay depending on the severity of the disease. It is usually treated with antibiotics, plenty of rest and fluids and most people recover within two weeks of contracting the illness.
Bacterial meningitis requires immediate medical treatment which is often provided in an intensive care unit. Antibiotics, intravenous fluids, oxygen and steroids may all be prescribed to try and help your body to fight the disease. If septicaemia has also been contracted, further treatment may be given. The length of time you spend in hospital can range from one week to several months depending on the seriousness of the illness and the stage in which it was caught.
There are a number of different viruses and bacteria that can cause meningitis and unfortunately it is not possible to prevent all of these from occurring. The best way to prevent the deadliest form of meningitis is with the meningitis vaccine and children should receive these as part of their childhood inoculations (at around 4 months old). A booster should then be given when the child reaches 12 months. However the meningitis vaccine only works to protect the body from meningitis C and septicaemia and as of the time of writing, there is currently no vaccine available to protect against meningitis B.
The meningitis vaccine is highly effective and has led to the number of cases of meningitis C (the fatal form of the disease) to decrease by 98% since its introduction in 2001.