What is meningitis, how do you get it, what are the symptoms and is there a vaccine?


IT can be mistaken as the flu or even a hangover – but knowing the symptoms of potentially deadly meningitis could save your life.

Meningitis can affect anyone, but is most common in babies, young children, teenagers and young adults. We reveal all…

 The red ticks show symptoms that are the most common and more specific to meningitis and septicaemia and less common in other illnesses, the black ticks are symptoms that could be mistaken for another illness

Meningitis Research Foundation
The red ticks show symptoms that are the most common and more specific to meningitis and septicaemia and less common in other illnesses, the black ticks are symptoms that could be mistaken for another illness

What is meningitis?

It is the inflammation of the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord and can be caused by meningococcal bacteria and viral meningitis.

If it is not treated quickly, meningitis can cause life-threatening septicaemia (blood poisoning) and result in permanent damage to the brain or nerves.

The two forms of the disease have different symptoms.

Around 3,200 people a year get bacterial meningitis. One in 10 die and many more are left with life-changing disabilities.

Viral forms of meningitis are less common and rarely life-threatening, but can have lifelong effects.

Infections peak during winter when bugs spread more easily in confined spaces.

How do you get meningitis?

Meningitis is usually passed on from people who carry the virus or bacterial form in their throat or nose, but aren’t ill themselves.

It can be spread through kissing, sneezing, coughing and sharing household items such as toothbrushes or cutlery.

It is thought that the bacteria are able to invade the body more easily via the nose and throat during winter due to recent infection with flu virus.

The illness can be caught from someone who is ill with meningitis but this is more rare.

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There are several types of vaccinations to prevent against the disease, which can be given to babies as young as eight weeks

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

The symptoms of meningitis develop suddenly and include:

  • A high fever over 37.5 degrees – the average human temperature
  • being sick
  • a headache
  • a blotchy rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it
  • stiffness, especially in the neck
  • sensitivity to bright lights
  • drowsiness, irritability or lack of energy
  • cold hands and feet
  • seizures
 It can be mistaken for the flu or even a hangover

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It can be mistaken for the flu or even a hangover

The classic rash associated with meningitis usually looks like small, red pinpricks at first.

But it will spread over the body and turn into red or purple blotches.

If you press the side of a glass firmly against the skin where the rash is and it does not fade, it is a sign of blood poisoning and you should get medical help immediately.

The Meningitis Research Foundation has warned the symptoms can easily be mistaken for a hangover.

The charity urged people to look out for the symptoms in family and friends during winter, when the illness is more prevalent.

On average there are three times as many cases of the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in January compared with September.

In the last couple of years there has been a rise in cases of a particularly deadly type among teenagers and young adults – the MenW ST-11 strain.

The fatality rate has been 12 per cent compared to around 5 per cent for other strains of meningitis.

 Bacterial meningitis is more deadly, killing 10 per cent of patients

Bacterial meningitis is more deadly, killing 10 per cent of patients

In babies, the symptoms can be slightly different.

They may:

  • refuse to eat
  • be agitated and not want to be picked up
  • have a bulging soft spot in their head
  • be floppy and unresponsive
  • have an unusual, high-pitched cry
  • have a stiff body

More than a third of parents do not know the early symptoms of the killer disease.

Research has found 38 per cent of mums and dads wrongly thought a rash is the first sign of the killer infection, when actually the spots only appear when the child is already very ill.

It is often hard for doctors to diagnose meningitis and the parents of five-year-old Kelsey Smart were awarded a five-figure settlement after their daughter died after being wrongly diagnosed with a stomach bug.

Kelsey died after three different GPs failed to recognise her condition and send her to A&E.

Her parents Hannah and Jamie say it “cripples them inside” to think their little girl could have been saved, and hope speaking out may stop other families from having to suffer.

 In cases of sepsis, the rash will not fade if you press a glass to it

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In cases of sepsis, the rash will not fade if you press a glass to it

Is there a vaccine for meningitis?

There are several vaccinations that offer protection against meningitis.

They can be given to babies and young adults.

They are

  • The Meningitis B vaccine: this is for babies aged eight weeks, followed by a second dose at 16 weeks and a booster at one year. It will protect your baby against infection by meningococcal group B bacteria, which is responsible for more than 90 per cent of infections in young children.
  • 5-in-1 vaccine: this is offered to babies at eight, 12 and 16 weeks of age. This won’t just protect against meningitis, but will also protect against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio.
  • Pneumococcal vaccine: this is offered to babies at eight weeks, 16 weeks and one year. It will protect against pneumonia, septicaemia and meningitis.
  • Meningitis C vaccine: This is offered at 1 year of age, and to teenagers and first-time university students. The success of this vaccine means there are almost no cases of that strain of meningitis in the UK anymore.
  • MMR vaccine: This is offered to babies at one year and a second dose at three years and four months. It protects against measles, mumps and rubella, which can lead to meningitis and septicaemia.
  • Meningitis ACWY vaccine: This is offered to teenagers, sixth formers and “fresher” students going to university for the first time. The vaccine protects against four different causes of meningitis and septicaemia – meningococcal A, C, W and Y diseases.

Are students vaccinated against meningitis?

A rise in the number of students being struck down by deadly meningitis has prompted health experts to urge all students to get the Men ACWY jab.

The vaccine protects against group W meningococcal disease, which can cause meningitis and septicaemia.

The warning comes as more young people are struck by the deadly disease.

Cases of the highly contagious strain of Men W bacteria increased from 22 in England in 2009/10 to 210 in 2015/16.

As a result the Men W jab was added to the national immunisation programme in August 2015.

Now, Public Health England are encouraging all older teenagers and uni students to get vaccinated to protect themselves.

This age group is thought to be at higher risk of infection because they mix closely with lots of new people.

The risk is greater because some of those people may unknowingly carry the meningococcal bacteria in the backs of their noses and throats.

While more than two million eligible young people have received the MenACWY vaccine, some remain unprotected.

What is the treatment for meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis, which is more dangerous, needs to be treated in hospital for at least a week.

Patients will receive antibiotics, fluids and oxygen.

If it is treated quickly then the prognosis is good, but patients can be left with serious long-term problems including blindness, deafness, loss of limb due to sepsis, problems with memory and concentration, recurrent seizures and problems with co-ordination and balance.

Ten per cent of cases result in death.

Viral infections are less serious and tend to get better on their own within 10 days with plenty of rest and pain killers, but you should always seek medical advice first.

 There are several vaccinations that offer protection against meningitis

Getty Images
There are several vaccinations that offer protection against meningitis

What is Septicaemia?

Septicaemia, also known as sepsis, is a rare but serious complication of an infection that can quickly lead to multiple organ failure and death.

The blood poisoning occurs when large amounts of bacteria enter the bloodstream.

Bacterial meningitis can lead to septicaemia.

Sepsis can also be caused by viral or fungal infections, although bacterial infections are by far the most common cause.

Symptoms in children under 5:

  • your child may look mottled, bluish or pale
  • is very lethargic and difficult to wake
  • feels abnormally cold to touch
  • is breathing very fast or having difficulty breathing
  • has a rash that does not fade when you press on it
  • is fitting or convulsing
  • has a high temperature
  • refusing to eat or drink
  • has not had a wee for over 12 hours

Symptoms in older children and adults:

  • a high temperature
  • chills and shivering
  • fast heartbeat
  • fast breathing
  • feeling dizzy or faint
  • confusion and disorientation
  • diarrhoea
  • nausea and vomiting
  • slurred speech
  • severe muscle pain
  • breathlessness
  • not urinating for a day
  • cold, clammy and pale skin
  • loss of consciousness

If any of these symptoms develop you should seek medical advice straight away.

Animation describes the signs and symptoms of Meningitis



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