Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) that protect the spinal cord and the brain. There are many types of meningitis; viral and bacterial being the two most common. Other types include fungal, parasitic and non-infectious meningitis. While viral meningitis is typically mild and has a high recovery rate, bacterial meningitis can be fatal and lead to septicaemia (blood poisoning). Although rare, bacterial meningitis is aggressive and can spread within hours. This form of the infection can result in loss of limbs, irreversible brain damage and, in some cases, death. There are several serogroups of meningococcal bacteria, the bacterial form of meningitis: A, B, C, W, X, Y and Z. While meningitis can occur in people of all ages, babies, young children and teenagers are most susceptible.
Meningitis requires immediate medical attention; if you or your child are suffering with any of the following symptoms, seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Rash. The appearance of a rash on the body is a sign of meningococcal septicaemia. The rash looks like clusters of pin pricks and will not disappear under pressure. The rash occurs when the bacteria are released into the bloodstream and release endotoxins (poisons). The body’s natural defences have little effect on the endotoxins; these poisons can damage blood vessels. Septicaemia can cause liver damage and organ failure if left untreated.
High temperature. If you or your child have an abnormally high temperature of 38C or above, seek medical advice.
Cold hands and feet. A lesser-known symptom of meningitis, cold hands and feet can occur even when the sufferer has a high temperature.
Sensitivity to bright light. Sudden sensitivity to light may be a symptom of meningitis.
Seizures. During the initial stages of meningitis, the swelling of the membranes surrounding the spinal cord and the brain may cause seizures. Seizures are typically brief and do not lead to any further medical problems.
Aching muscles and joints. Aches and pains in the joints and muscles can become quite a severe symptom of meningitis and may impede mobility.
Meningitis can be highly contagious; it can be spread by the swapping of saliva, coughing, sneezing and sharing utensils and cutlery. Meningitis is typically caught from those who carry the virus or bacteria in their nose or throat but who do not actually have meningitis themselves.
Once diagnosed, patients with meningitis—particularly those with bacterial meningitis—will need close monitoring during their treatment and will typically stay in hospital for anywhere between a few days and several weeks. Fluids may be given intravenously to prevent dehydration, antibiotics will be administered directly into a vein and patients may be given a course of steroids in order to reduce inflammation and swelling in the brain.
It could be a while before you or your child begin to feel normal after meningitis. While most people experience a remarkable recovery from the infection, it may leave behind some complications in others. Some of these may include:
- Hearing loss
- Recurrent seizures
- Problems with memory and concentration
- Vision loss
- Loss of limbs
- Joint problems such as arthritis
- Learning difficulties and behavioural problems
You or your child may have access to additional support and treatment if you suffer from complications as a result of the infection. If meningitis resulted in amputation of limbs, rehabilitation and prosthetic limbs may be available. You may also be offered counselling and psychological support to help you come to terms with the trauma.
Meningitis Now—the UK’s largest meningitis charity—offers advice and support for those who have suffered with the infection. You can join their growing community at www.meningitisnow.org