What is meningitis?

Meningitis is a life-threatening condition – meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, which are the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord.  Most cases of meningitis are caused by viral or bacterial infections, but meningitis can also rarely occur as a result of other causes such as fungal infections, some forms of cancer, and adverse reactions to drugs. Without treatment, bacterial meningitis can be fatal in up to 70% of cases and may cause permanent after effects such as loss of limb(s) and brain damage in around 20% of survivors.

The first signs can often be mistaken for the flu – early symptoms include fever, headaches, vomiting, and muscle pain. This can make at-home diagnosis of meningitis difficult as the symptoms of flu and meningitis are so similar. The main symptom that could differentiate meningitis from the flu is that meningitis causes stiffness in the neck, which is not a symptom that is typically seen in the flu. Also, flu is often accompanied by respiratory problems such as coughing, which is not as commonly associated with meningitis.

The distinctive red rash is a symptom of septicaemia - septicaemia is blood poisoning that can be caused by the same bacteria that leads to bacterial meningitis. The most recognisable sign of meningitis is a red rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is pressed against it, which is actually a sign of blood poisoning caused by septicaemia. Septicaemia can cause death within hours, so urgent medical care is required if these symptoms are displayed.

Who is at risk of meningitis?

Babies, toddlers, and young children are at the most risk of meningitis – younger children are at risk because their immune systems are not fully developed, and are unable to effectively fight the infection. According to TackleMeningitis, babies under 3 months old are 70 times more likely to get bacterial meningitis than adults.

Teenagers and young adults are also at a higher risk of meningitis – those in this age group are more likely to have meningitis-causing bacteria in their nose and throats, which can be spread through close contact to those without natural immunity. Approximately 25% of those in the 15-19 age group are carriers of meningitis-causing bacteria.

How do you get meningitis?

Most cases of meningitis in the UK are caused by viral infections – viral meningitis is most common form of meningitis in the UK, and occurs when a virus triggers inflammations in the brain and spinal cord. This can be caused by viral infections such as herpes, the flu, and measles. Viral meningitis itself is not contagious, but the underlying viral infections that cause meningitis are. However, it is very rare that these viruses will trigger viral meningitis, even if the virus was caught from someone who already had viral meningitis.

Bacterial infections are the second most common cause of meningitis in the UK – meningococcal bacteria is carried by about 10% of the population. Most most people who have had contact with meningococcal bacteria don't become ill, but you can carry the bacteria in your throat and nose even if you suffer no ill effects yourself. Meningococcal bacteria can only survive momentarily outside of the body, so you are unlikely to be infected just by being near somebody who has it. The bacteria is typically transmitted by exposure to infected saliva and mucus, which can be spread by:

  • Kissing
  • Sharing cutlery
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing

Fungal meningitis is very rare in the UK – fungal meningitis is typically caused by a fungus called cryptococcus, which is contracted by inhaling fungal spores that live in the soil. Fungal meningitis occurs when these spores spread through the blood and into the spinal cord, causing inflammation. Fungal meningitis is not contagious, and is extremely rare in the UK.

Meningitis can be caused without an infection – non-infectious meningitis is an umbrella term given to meningitis that is not triggered by an underlying infection. Non-infectious meningitis is not contagious, and can be caused by a number of triggers, including:

  • Head injuries
  • Brain surgery
  • Cancer
  • Lupus
  • Reaction to certain drugs

What are the long-term effects of meningitis?

Meningitis can cause permanent and life-changing after effects in survivors – 20% of all survivors of bacterial meningitis will suffer after effects that can have a profound effect on their quality of life. Long-term health complications are much more common in cases of bacterial meningitis than in other types of meningitis. Potential complications include:

  • Partial or total loss of vision
  • Partial or total loss of hearing
  • Loss of motor functions
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Epilepsy
  • Learning difficulties and behavioural problems
  • Loss of limb – amputation of damaged tissue is sometimes required to prevent the infection spreading throughout the body.
  • Scarring of the skin
  • Kidney problems
  • Bone and joint problems

Can meningitis be cured?

Meningitis must be treated urgently – meningitis is considered to be a medical emergency, and requires emergency treatment in hospital at the first sign of symptoms. The treatment used will depend on what triggered the symptoms of meningitis, but it is common for antibiotics to be prescribed before the diagnosis has been confirmed in case the meningitis was caused by meningococcal bacteria. Meningitis can be treated, but treatment does not guarantee that there will be no long-term health complications after recovery.

Viral meningitis will normally go away on its own – after being diagnosed in a hospital, if it is a mild case of viral meningitis, then treatment in hospital is not necessary. Viral meningitis will typically clear up on its own after 7-10 days, though you may experience discomfort, pain, and nausea during recovery. It is recommended that that you get plenty of rest during this recovery period, and take painkillers for headaches and muscle aches.

Can health complications caused by meningitis be reversed? – in some cases, it is possible to recover from health complications caused by meningitis. For example, those who experience vision loss as a result of an inflamed optic nerve may regain their sight if the swelling reduces. Unfortunately, some people are affected by lifelong complications that will have a life-changing impact. Some long-term health complications caused by meningitis may be managed with medical technology, such as cochlear implants for those who experience hearing loss, or prosthetic limbs for amputees. For those suffering long-term complications, organisations like Meningitis Now and the NHS can offer support, advice, and counselling.

How can I protect myself against meningitis?

Get vaccinated – as meningitis can be caused by a variety of organisms, there are a number of vaccinations that offer protection against different types of meningitis.

Meningitis B vaccine – the meningitis B vaccine protects against meningococcal group B bacteria, which is a common cause of meningitis in babies, toddlers, and young children. The meningitis B vaccine is offered routinely to babies born after May 2015 on the NHS, and is available privately for men and women up to the age of 50 with Superdrug Health Clinics.

Meningitis C vaccine – the meningitis C vaccine protects against meningococcal group C bacteria, which is a rare cause on meningitis in babies, toddlers, and young children. The meningitis C vaccination was offered routinely on the NHS until July 2016, who discontinued the vaccine as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme as the success of the vaccine resulted in almost no new cases of meningitis C in the UK. Protection against meningitis C is still provided by the Hib/MenC vaccine given at one year old and the meningitis ACWY vaccine.

Meningitis ACWY vaccine – the meningitis ACWY vaccine protects against meningococcal groups A,C, W, and Y, which is a common cause of meningitis in teenagers, university students, and those undertaking the Hajj Pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. The meningitis ACWY vaccine is offered routinely to children aged 13 to 14 and students up to the age of 25 on the NHS, and is available from Superdrug Health Clinics as well.

6-in-1 vaccine – the 6-in-1 vaccine protects against 6 different infections including Haemophilus influenzae tybe b (Hib), which is an extremely rare cause of meningitis in young children. Inclusion of the Hib vaccine in the NHS childhood vaccination programme has seen a cut the number of Hib infections to less than 20 cases per year.

Pneumonia vaccine – the pneumonia vaccine protects against the pneumococcal bacteria, which can rarely lead to pneumococcal meningitis. The pneumonia vaccine Prevenar 13 is offered to children under the age of 2 on the NHS, and is also available for over 2s from Superdrug Health Clinics.

MMR vaccine – the MMR vaccine offers protection against measles, mumps, and rubella, which can sometimes cause meningitis. The MMR vaccine is routinely offered to babies, usually around their first birthday, on the NHS, and is also available for adults over 18 who may have missed out from Superdrug Health Clinics.

Chickenpox vaccine – chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus, which can rarely cause complications such as viral meningitis. The chickenpox vaccine is not offered routinely by the NHS, but it is available from Superdrug Health Clinics.

Flu vaccine – viral meningitis is a possible complication of the flu. The NHS offers the flu jab to high risk groups, such as pregnant women, those aged 65+, and young children. Superdrug Health Clinics also offers the flu jab as a walk-in service.

Stay hygienic – bacterial meningitis is the most common type of meningitis, as it is the most easily spread. Employing basic hygiene goes a long way to stopping the spread of bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis and viruses that may cause viral meningitis.

  • Keep your hands clean
  • Stay away from those infected
  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing
  • Don’t share eating utensils