Family health advice: What you need to know about meningitis

South Manchester News health columnist Dr Alexandra Phelan
By Dr Alexandra Phelan, a working NHS GP and member of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service

While it’s relatively rare, meningitis is contagious and potentially fatal.

Meningitis can strike suddenly and kill quickly, so if you suspect a member of your family could have it, you should treat it as a medical emergency.

Babies and youngsters under five, teenagers and students – especially those living in halls of residence or at boarding school – and people over 55 are especially vulnerable to the disease, which can be caused by bacteria or a virus.

Bacterial meningitis is more serious than viral meningitis as it can lead to life-threatening septicaemia (blood poisoning).

Meningitis is difficult to diagnose as symptoms can be similar to other illnesses, such as flu.

In babies and toddlers, they can include a high fever with cold hands and feet; loss of appetite and vomiting; becoming drowsy, floppy and unresponsive; grunting or breathing rapidly; a stiff neck and dislike of bright light and convulsions or seizures.

A red rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it is perhaps the most well-known symptom – but sometimes a rash doesn’t appear at all, so if you suspect meningitis don’t wait to see if one develops, seek urgent medical help.

In older children, teenagers and adults, symptoms can also include confusion and irritability, a severe headache, and/or a stiff neck and difficulty waking-up.

Meningitis vaccinations

Vaccinations protect against several types of meningococcal bacteria, so it’s important to ensure your children have their jabs.

Babies in the UK are now being offered the meningococcal group B vaccine as part of the routine immunisation schedule.

The bacteria can be spread through sneezing, coughing or kissing and sharing personal items such as cutlery or toothbrushes, and as they can’t survive for long outside the body, they are usually spread through continual close contact.

Teenagers and university students under 25 should ensure they have the meningitis ACWY vaccine, which protects against a particularly deadly strain of bacterial meningitis.

And people planning trips abroad should seek advice about getting a travel jab for meningitis. Contact your GP for information.

Viral meningitis causes milder, flu-like symptoms and doesn’t usually result in septicaemia.

Again, vaccination programmes have eliminated the threat from many viruses, but there are still a number that can cause meningitis.

Clinical tests are the only way to distinguish between the two types, and if doctors suspect meningitis, they will immediately start treatment with antibiotics before the diagnosis has been confirmed because any delay could be dangerous.

  • If you’re unsure whether it’s meningitis – don’t delay. Call your GP, practice nurse or health visitor.  You can also get advice by calling 24-hour freephone helplines at either the Meningitis Research Foundation on 0808 800 3344, or Meningitis Now on 0808 801 0388.