What is Meningitis?
The meninges are protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is an infection of the meninges that causes them to become inflamed and this in turn can lead to damage of the nerves and brain. It is a very serious illness. Meningitis is often associated with septicemia, (blood poisoning) which itself is also extremely serious.
While meningitis is a disease that can prove fatal, most people will recover although in some cases people are left deaf or blind. One of the biggest problems with meningitis is the speed at which it develops. People can seem very well one minute and then be extremely ill just a few hours later. A further problem is that the symptoms can be difficult to tell apart from less serious infections such as flu.
There are two types of meningitis. They are bacterial meningitis, which as is suggested by the name is caused by bacteria, and viral meningitis. In bacterial meningitis, the bacteria that are found naturally in the nose and throat are spread through close contact with others. Only in a very small number of cases do the germs overwhelm the body's immune system to cause meningitis. Viral meningitis is caused by a virus that can be spread through coughing, sneezing and poor hygiene.
Bacterial meningitis is extremely serious and should be treated as an emergency. There are a number of different types of bacterial meningitis including meningococcal meningitis and septicemia, pneumococcal meningitis, haemophilus influenzae meningitis and TB Meningitis.
In the epidemiological year 2011-12 there were approximately 2,350 cases of bacterial meningitis and septicemia in the UK. Left untreated it can cause severe brain damage. It is most common in children under five – and especially babies, but it also common among 15-19 year olds.
While Meningococcal group B disease is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in the UK (with no current vaccine available), there were 1,265 cases of meningitis caused by the Neisseria meningitidis bacteria in England and Wales in 2009 and 2010, although happily there is a vaccine for this particular infection.
Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis and is less serious. It can be difficult to know for sure the number of cases of viral meningitis that occur annually because symptoms can be mild and mistaken for flu.
Viral meningitis is most commonly found in children.
What Are the Symptoms of Meningitis?
Signs and Symptoms of Meningitis in Babies
- Refusing food
- High pitched crying
- Bulging fontanel (the soft spot on the top of the baby's head)
- Blotchy or pale skin
- Rapid breathing
- Floppy body or stiff body
Signs and Symptoms of Meningitis in Older Children and Adults
- Severe headache
- Stiff neck
- Aversion to bright lights
- Fever and vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
- Cold hands and feet
- Aches and pains
It is important to note that not everyone gets all of the above symptoms and they can appear in any order. If any of the symptoms of meningitis are noted, particularly in young children, seek medical attention immediately.
If septicemia is present, then a rash may develop. The rash will be tiny red pinpricks that turn to purplish red blotches. When you press on the rash with a glass tumbler, the spots do not fade.
While meningitis can be difficult to diagnose it is important to find medical help the moment that you suspect that something is wrong. Do not wait for a rash to appear. Treatment will usually begin before the diagnosis has been confirmed because tests take a long time to come back and any delay can be dangerous.
Several blood tests will be performed that search for markers of inflammation in the body while attempting to identify any bacteria causing the infection.
In some cases a lumbar puncture may be carried out. A lumbar puncture involves inserting a needle through the lower part of the back in order to obtain a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord), which is then tested. The lumbar puncture can itself also be a treatment for meningitis, because draining the excess fluid caused by inflammation relieves the pressure on the brain.
For sufferers of viral meningitis, the good news is that most cases will get better within a few weeks, with plenty of rest, fluids and painkillers. However, it can still be serious and in rare cases can progress from headache, fever and drowsiness, to deep coma.
Bacterial meningitis, meanwhile, is usually treated with admission to a hospital. In some cases sufferers will be treated in an intensive care unit so the body's vital functions are supported.
The Vaccination Programme for Meningitis
Children in the UK are now offered vaccination against three of the main causes of bacterial meningitis: meningococcal group C, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type B) and pneumococcus (Streptococcus pneumoniae). Since 1992, thanks to the vaccine programme, Hib meningitis which was once the most common form in children has been virtually eliminated.
Since June 2013 the first dose of meningitis C vaccine is given at three months of age. A second dose is given between 12 and 13 months and starting from the 2013/14 academic year, a booster will be given to teenagers in order to increase the protection against meningitis C among teenagers and young adults. Anyone under 25 who is about to attend University is also advised to have the vaccine.
None of the vaccines used contain any 'live' bacteria, so they cannot give anyone meningitis or septicaemia.
The link below provides you with a vaccination calendar for children in the different regions of Spain.
Are There Any Long-Term Effects of Meningitis?
Most people will recover well after meningitis, although it can take some time to return to normal.
The after effects of meningitis will vary for each individual, but may include some emotional or psychological problems and some may suffer some minor learning difficulties. In more severe cases there can be hearing loss or loss of sight, epilepsy, organ failure or damage to bones and joints.