What are meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia?

Meningitis is the name given to infections and inflammations of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. There are different types of meningitis and, while rare, they can be dangerous – about 10% of people who get meningitis die. Meningococcal septicaemia is a type of blood poisoning caused by one of the bacteria that cause meningitis. It has similar symptoms to meningitis and, while it is even rarer than meningitis, it is very dangerous – about 50% of people who have it die. Meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia can strike at any time of life, but babies, children, and young adults are at greatest risk. Early diagnosis is essential because survival rates in life-threatening cases are much higher if diagnosed early.

What are the signs to look for?
Some of the symptoms are common to non life-threatening cases, but a combination of several of the symptoms listed below could be serious. The two diseases can occur together, so sufferers may show symptoms of both:
Meningitis:
* Generally feeling unwell
* Stiff neck
* Unable to tolerate bright light
* Headache
* Aching limbs and joints – arms and legs feel heavy and difficult to move
* Drowsiness

Meningococcal septicaemia:
* High fever (not always obvious at first)
* Shivering, or suddenly going cold followed by shivers, cold fingers and toes
* Feeling sick, vomiting
* Severe muscle aches all over
* Losing full consciousness – drifting in and out of full consciousness, feeling very faint, or totally blacking out
* A skin rash that starts as tiny pinpricks of red and rapidly develops into large purplish blotches (i.e. in the space of a few hours or a couple of days). The rash or purple splodges on the skin will not fade away if you press them

Babies may also suffer from:
* Tense or bulging fontanelle (that is the soft areas on a baby’s head where the bone is not yet fully formed)
* Blotchy or pale skin
* Staring or glazed expression
* Refusing to feed
* Fretfulness, with a shrill or moaning cry when handled
* Stiffening body, with movements that are out of their control, or a floppy body

What will your doctor do?
Doctors who suspect either disease will get the patient to hospital as soon as possible. Once in hospital, the patient will be given a series of tests to find out what type of meningitis bacteria has caused the disease. Antibiotic or antifungal treatments are the usual way of treating the diseases, and antibiotic injections are normally given automatically by the doctor before the strain has been diagnosed. Other treatments may also be needed to deal with any damage that the disease(s) may have caused.

What can be done to prevent infection?
There are vaccines available that protect against meningococcal septicaemia and one of the strains of meningitis. The meningitis one is included in the HIB vaccine that preschool children receive, but does not protect against other strains of meningitis, so you still need to be vigilant.

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