Meningitis

What is meningitis?
What is septicaemia?
Am I at risk from Meningitis and Septicaemia?
How can I recognise the symptoms?
How do people contract Meningitis and Septicaemia?
Is there a vaccine?
Is there any other way to prevent Meningitis?

 

What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the brain.  It can be caused by several different organisms.  Some are bacteria and some are viruses.

Bacterial Meningitis is uncommon but can be very serious and requires urgent medical attention and treatment with antibiotics.  Viral Meningitis is less serious and cannot be helped by antibiotic treatment. The symptoms of viral and bacterial meningitis are similar so hospital tests may be needed to tell the difference.

If you are concerned you should seek medical advice immediately.

What is septicaemia?
Septicaemia is a type of blood poisoning which is caused by the same bacteria that cause the most common form of bacterial meningitis. In septicaemia, the bacteria release toxins into the blood which break down the walls of the blood vessels allowing blood to leak our under the skin. This leaking causes a characteristic rash of purple bruises, blood spots and reduces the amount of blood reaching vital organs such as the liver and kidneys.

Am I at risk from Meningitis and Septicaemia?
The risk of contracting meningitis or meningococcal septicaemia is very small, even if you have been in contact with someone who has developed these infections.

Although meningitis and septicaemia are not common diseases they are very dangerous and can develop rapidly.

The bacteria which cause meningitis and septicaemia are very common. Many of us will carry them at some stage in our lives without developing any illness. Only a tiny proportion of the population develop meningitis or septicaemia if they come into contact with the bacteria.  The bacteria are very weak.  They survive for only a short period of time outside the body, so they cannot live for a long time in the air and are not carried on household objects such as clothes or furniture. This means that you must be in very close contact with someone before the bacteria can pass between you. Even though this happens quite regularly, it is unlikely you will develop meningitis or septicaemia because most of us have natural resistance to the bacteria.

Although meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia are not common diseases they are very dangerous and can develop rapidly. That is why it is vital that everyone knows the signs and symptoms to watch out for.

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How can I recognise the symptoms?
In most cases someone with meningitis or septicaemia will become seriously ill very quickly. The signs and symptoms are listed here. Not all these signs and symptoms may show at once.

Trust your instincts. Seek medical help immediately if you are concerned.

TUMBLER TEST

If a glass tumbler is pressed firmly against a septicaemic rash, the marks will not fade. You will be able to see the marks through the glass. IF THIS HAPPENS GET MEDICAL HELP IMMEDIATELY.

Watch out for tiny red or brown pin prick marks, which can change into larger red or purple blotches or blood blisters.

The rash can be harder to see on dark skin, so check for spots especially on paler areas like palms of the hands, soles of the feet, the stomach, inside the eyelids and on the roof of the mouth.

Remember, a very ill person needs medical help even if there are only a few spots, a rash that fades or no rash at all.

In addition, babies may also suffer from

  • Tense or bulging fontanelle (soft spot on top of head)
  • Blotching or pale skin
  • Refusing to feed
  • Fretfulness with a shrill or moaning cry when picked up
  • Body stiffening with jerky movements, or a floppy body

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How do people contract Meningitis and Septicaemia?
At any one time, a number of the population will be carrying the bacteria which can cause meningococcal meningitis or septicaemia. Many of us carry them in the back of the nose and the throat without ever realising they are there. However, in a few people, the bacteria overcome the body's immune defences and pass through the lining of the nose and throat into the blood stream. Once in the blood, they can cause two types of disease: Meningococcal Meningitis and Septicaemia.

Is there a vaccine?
There is as yet no vaccine to protect against all strains of meningitis.

However, there are vaccines which offer protection against some forms of the disease and research to develop vaccines against other strains is continuing.

Vaccines are available to protect against Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) and pneumococcal meningitis (see information leaflet ‘Your Childs Immunisation - A guide for parents’, which is available here - www.immunisation.ie)

A vaccine is available to protect against Group C Meningococcal Disease. This vaccine is included in the Primary Childhood Immunisation Programme offered to all infants. The vaccine is available free of charge to all up to the age of 23 years of age.  Since the introduction of the Group C Meningococcal (MenC) vaccine in 2000 there has been a dramatic reduction in Group C disease in Ireland.  If you are under 23 years and have not yet been vaccinated you should contact your GP.

As there is no vaccine to protect against all types of meningitis it is still very important to be aware of, and alert to, the symptoms and signs of meningitis and septicaemia.

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Is there any other way to prevent Meningitis?
Apart from vaccines, there is no known way to protect against meningitis. However, awareness of the signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia helps prevent death and disability. It is NOT a highly infectious disease. Only very close family contacts of the patient are at an increased risk of contracting the disease. With meningococcal meningitis, and sometimes with Haemophilus influenzae type b, antibiotics are offered to these close contacts. They reduce, but cannot eliminate, the risk of family members becoming ill.  Other contacts, such as school friends and workmates, are only very rarely at higher risk and do not normally need special treatment or investigation.

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Read more about Meningitis in our Health A-Z