Everything you need to know about meningitis – from what it is & the symptoms, to how to treat & prevent it

Meningitis can affect anyone, but it's more common in babies, children, teenagers and young adults. It's estimated that 10 people in the UK get bacterial meningitis every day. 

It's important to recognise meningitis in its earliest stages when it's most treatable, and before any complications arise.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the protective films that cover the brain, known as the meninges, and the spinal cord. Any infection that's not treated in time can affect the brain, potentially causing long-term brain damage, skin damage, amputations, and sometimes even death.

There are many different causes, but the most frequent are bacterial and viral infections. Understanding whether a case is bacterial or viral requires medical tests.

Viral meningitis is usually the milder form of bacterial meningitis, but is more common. It mostly gets better on its own within seven to 10 days. There are many viruses that can cause meningitis, including the chickenpox virus, the measles virus and the influenza virus.

Bacterial meningitis usually requires treatment and a stay in hospital.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

The following symptoms won't be apparent in all cases of meningitis. The rash associated with meningitis may not appear or may fade away with pressure, in the early stages. Trust your instincts and seek immediate medical help if you’re worried that you or your child has meningitis. 

Early symptoms of meningitis include:

• Pale or blueish lips

• Cold hands and feet, even if the child has a high temperature

• Fever

• Pain around the legs – the child may refuse to walk

• The child looks weak and sick

Other symptoms are:

• A severe headache

• Difficulty bending the neck – a stiff neck

• Looking at light can be painful

• Excessive crying

• Vomiting

• Loss of appetite

• Drowsiness

• Fast breathing

• Pale and blotchy skin

• Fits (seizures)

If meningitis is not treated quickly, other symptoms may start appearing, like fits, unconsciousness and loss of power or sensation in different nerves.

What should I do if I think my child has meningitis?

Typically, symptoms progress over a few hours to a couple of days. If you think your child has meningitis, it's important to act quickly. Don’t wait for a rash to appear and get medical advice straight away. 

If you think your child is seriously ill, take them to your nearest A&E department or call 999 for an ambulance.

If you're not sure it’s a serious illness, call NHS 111 or your GP, who will guide you through the next steps.

What is the treatment for meningitis?

This will depend on the cause of the meningitis. Doctors may perform a lumbar puncture, in which they take a few drops of fluid from the spinal cord and send a sample to the lab. The medical staff will make sure your child is as comfortable as possible throughout the whole procedure, which takes just a few minutes. This test will let the doctors know the cause of your child's meningitis and help them decide how to treat it.

If a bacterial infection is the cause, your child will receive antibiotics, very likely through the vein. You may notice nurses or doctors giving your child an injection with antibiotics as soon as they see the child, even before performing any other tests. They'll do this if they suspect your child has bacterial meningitis. This saves time and gives your child the treatment needed as soon as possible.

Other treatments may include:

• A drip with fluids to prevent dehydration

• Painkillers for headaches and back pain

• Steroids to decrease inflammation

• Oxygen through a face mask 

Medicines aren't usually given for viral meningitis, because the body is often able to fight the infection on its own. However, painkillers, hydration and medicines to bring a high temperature down are often given to help relieve symptoms.

What are the complications of meningitis?

Most people fully recover from meningitis, but sometimes complications can happen, especially when meningitis isn't treated quickly. This is why it’s so important to seek medical help as soon as possible if you think you or your child has meningitis symptoms. Long-term problems associated with bacterial meningitis include:

• Permanent nerve damage, which means difficulty using an affected body part, such as the legs

• Amputations of part of the legs or arms if there's severe damage to the peripheries

• Permanent brain damage, resulting in learning difficulties

• Kidney and adrenal gland damage

• Hearing loss

• Epilepsy

Viral meningitis is much less likely to lead to complications.

How could my child get meningitis?

Some people are carriers and carry the viruses or bacteria which cause meningitis in their nose or throat, but aren't sick themselves.

Whenever someone with meningitis coughs or sneezes, droplets containing a meningitis-causing germ are launched into the air. Droplets will eventually also settle down on surfaces, where germs can survive for several hours. Meningitis can develop after inhaling infected droplets or touching an infected surface.

Being around someone who later developed meningitis can place you or your child at risk of getting infected. However, you'll need to spend some hours in close contact with them before becoming vulnerable to meningitis infection.

How can I help prevent meningitis?

Fortunately, nowadays we have several vaccines that can help prevent many of the most common causes of meningitis. Children should receive most of these through the NHS vaccination schedule. Check with your GP if you’re unsure if your child has received all their routine vaccinations. 

Meningitis B vaccine

It protects against the meningococcus type B, a common cause of meningitis in young children. It's given to eight-week old babies, with a booster at 16 weeks and one year.

Pneumococcal vaccine

Protects against Streptococcus pneumoniae, which can cause serious infections, such as meningitis. It is given at eight weeks, 16 weeks and one year.

Hib/Men C vaccine

Covering against H. influenzae and a type of bacteria called meningococcus type C which can cause meningitis. It's given to babies at one year.

Meningitis ACWY

Protects from four types of bacteria which can cause meningitis: the meningococci types A, C, W and Y. It's given to young teenagers or young people entering a new sixth form college or university.

MMR vaccine

It helps prevent infection with the mumps, measles and rubella viruses, which can all cause meningitis. It's given to children at one year of age and again at three years and four months.

Other protective measures are:

• Washing hands frequently
• Washing hands before touching food and after using the bathroom
• Avoiding touching the face
• Avoiding sharing toothbrushes, utensils and cutlery

Meningitis B Vaccination Service at Boots

In the UK, the NHS offers a meningitis B vaccination as part of the routine childhood immunisations programme to babies, at eight weeks and 16 weeks of age, with a booster at 12 months of age. 

People who fall outside the age range covered by the NHS and are considering the vaccination for themselves or their children may be able to access the service privately. Boots offers a private Meningitis B Vaccination Service for adults and children aged two and over, available in over 350 pharmacies (subject to specially-trained pharmacist and stock availability. Eligibility criteria and charges apply. Talk to your GP about the vaccination if your child is under 24 months). You’ll need to have a consultation with a pharmacist who will check suitability. 

Next steps

• Trust your instincts and seek immediate medical help if you’re worried that you or your child might have meningitis. Don’t wait for a rash to develop 

• If you think your child is seriously ill, take them to your nearest A&E department or call 999 for an ambulance

• If you’re unsure it’s serious illness, call your GP or NHS 111 

• Protect against meningitis and other serious illnesses by making sure your child’s vaccinations are up to date


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