Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes, meninges that surround the brain and spinal cord. Inflammation can cause damage to the nerves and brain that lie close to the meninges. Meningitis can be caused by Neisseria meningitis bacteria, which is often called meningococcal bacteria, or by a virus. Viral meningitis is more common and less serious than bacterial meningitis. There are various different types of meningococcal bacteria, for example A, B, C, W, X, Y and Z, with B causing the most cases in the UK. Bacterial meningitis is common in young children, teenagers and university students.
How does it spread?
Viral meningitis can spread by coughing or sneezing. Meningitis bacteria cannot survive long outside of the body, so it can only really spread through close contact, such as kissing or sharing personal possessions with others.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms for viral meningitis are mild and similar to the flu, most people do not even realise they have viral meningitis. However bacterial meningitis is more severe and can cause life threating complications. The symptoms of bacterial meningitis include headaches, vomiting, muscle pain, cold hands and feet, fever, stiff neck, dislike of bright lights and a rash (however this may not develop). It is important that if you are suffering these symptoms you seek medical help immediately.
Is meningitis treatable?
Bacterial meningitis is usually treated in hospital with antibiotics, fluids, oxygen and steroids to reduce inflammation in the brain and spinal cord. Viral meningitis is treated with painkillers and fluid.
Is meningitis preventable?
Meningitis can be protected by vaccination. In 2015 a new Meningococcal ACWY vaccine was introduced for teenagers aged 16-18 years, and first time university students. The vaccine provides good protection against the serious infections caused by meningococcal bacteria A,C,W and Y. This age range is important as older teenagers and students are at high risk of contracting meningitis as they interact closely with new people.
Many of those who suffer from meningitis make a full recovery, however other people aren’t as fortunate. Having a serious brain or spinal cord infection can lead to long lasting damage to many bodily functions, including hearing loss, visual impairments, emotional changes, the development of difficulties with learning, and acquired brain injury.
For more information about meningitis, you can head to the Meningitis Now website by visiting meningitisnow. org, where you can find further information on the signs and symptoms, read stories from people whose lives have been affected by meningitis and the current research projects aiming to create better treatments, and eventually eradicate the disease.