Family Health Diary

There was a recent death from meningitis reported in the newspapers. Although meningitis is more common in winter it is good for everyone to be aware of the symptoms because early treatment is really important. With appropriate early treatment the death rate from bacterial meningitis is 15%. This is still high compared with other infections but it is a much better chance than not getting treatment.

We want to keep our children safe so: what is meningitis? How can we avoid it? What are the symptoms so we can get the person to the doctor quickly (as this can save their life).

Meningitis can be caused by a bacteria or virus. It is the bacterial meningitis that can be treated and cured with antibiotics. Anyone can catch it but it is more common in babies and preschool children, teenagers, and young adults.  It seems to be more common in young adults who are flatting or boarding; especially someone who has just stated at university or just joined the armed forces.

How do I get it?
Meningitis is caught from moisture droplets from the mouth or nose of someone with the infection. This is just like the flu or the common cold. People catch it from someone sneezing on them, kissing or by sharing cups or cutlery. This could be by using a cup in the student flat when it hasn’t been washed and dried properly (or at all). Like with other infections, some people can have the infection and not get sick but still pass it on to others. You cannot catch meningitis from just breathing the same air as someone with it.

Meningitis can be difficult to diagnose because it can look like other illnesses, such as the flu. The symptoms can come on quickly and may even seem like the flu.

The most common symptom of meningitis is a severe headache. This happens in 9 out or every 10 people with bacterial meningitis. Another common symptom is not being able to bend the neck forward to touch the chin on the chest. This will be too painful because the meninges (the membrane about the brain and spinal cord) are inflamed.

If someone has the above two symptoms take them straight to the hospital.

90% of people with meningitis have the severe headache. Less than half of people with meningitis will have headache, stiff neck and fever.

Death from meningitis can occur within a few hours. Do not put the person to bed and see how they are in the morning. With antibiotic treatment most people recover from meningitis. However, permanent disabilities (such as brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disabilities) are other possible outcomes.

There is a typical meningitis rash that some people get, but often this is only seen once the person is in hospital (or should be in hospital). The rash is reddish-purple pin-prick spots or bruises.

Other symptoms that might be meningitis or something else include:

  • Sudden high fever or headache by itself – rather than both symptoms at the same time.
  • sleepiness
  • joint and muscle pains
  • dislike of bright lights
  • vomiting
  • crying and refusal to feed (in infants)

Ministry of Health official information says:

“If you notice any of the symptoms of meningococcal disease or have any other concerns, contact your doctor without delay – or call Healthline free on 0800 611 116 at any hour of the day or night, even if you have already been seen by a health professional.”

Written by Linda Caddick

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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