The brain and spinal cord are surrounded by protective membranes called meninges. When these become infected it is called meningitis. It is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection and is most common amongst younger children, young adults, older people and those with a weak immune system. Meningitis can spread through kissing, coughing and sneezing of affected or unaffected people. It can be life-threatening and can lead to permanent damage to the brain or nerves. Thankfully, vaccinations are available that offer some protection against meningitis.
Symptoms of meningitis can occur rapidly and they can include some, but not always all of the following symptoms:
Not all of these symptoms may occur, and they can occur in any order. Meningitis is typically caused by a bacterial or viral illness. The bacterial illness is not as common but tends to be more serious than the viral illness.
There are vaccinations against many of the potential causes of meningitis. The following vaccinations are part of the NHS immunisation schedule, and being up to date with them will offer you increased protection;
Meningitis B vaccine - is offered at 8 weeks, 16 weeks and 1 year of life.
6 in 1 vaccine (also known as the DTaP/IPV/Hib/Hep B vaccine) is offered at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age
Hib/MenC vaccine - offered at 1 year of age
Pneumococcal vaccine – babies are offered this vaccine as 2 separate injections at 12 weeks with a booster given at 1 year old. A single dose is also offered to people aged 65 and over.
MMR vaccine - offered at 1 year old and 3 years and 4 months old
Meningitis ACWY vaccine- offered to teenagers aged 14 and people up to the age of 25 who have never had a vaccine containing MenC
If meningitis is suspected you should speak to a healthcare professional urgently. If your child is very unwell, call an ambulance or attend your nearest emergency department. The sooner treatment is given the better.
At the hospital, the doctors will take different tests to confirm the presence of meningitis. Viral infection is usually able to be treated at home and improves after a week or so. Bacterial infection, although rarer, is more severe, and needs to be treated in the hospital as do very severe cases of viral meningitis. Treatments may include fluid and antibiotics directly into a vein, oxygen through a mask and sometimes steroids to reduce swelling around the brain.
Severe infections with bacterial meningitis can lead to complications in some people and it is estimated that one person in every two or three who survives bacterial meningitis is left with one or more permanent problems afterwards. This can be problems with focus and memory, ongoing seizures or fits, difficulties with balance and movement, loss of hearing or vision and in very severe circumstances loss of limbs. On average, 1 in every 10 cases of bacterial meningitis can be deadly which is why it is so important to seek help quickly if you suspect it.
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