Meningitis: what every parent needs to know

Meningitis is the illness parents fear most. Winter sees an increase in cases, so familiarise yourself with the signs, symptoms and facts.

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What is meningitis?

Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord commonly caused by viruses and bacteria. Bacteria usually live harmlessly in the back of the throat. Most of us will carry them at some stage in our lives without becoming ill, and they help us build up natural immunity (protection against the disease). They are passed from person to person through coughing and sneezing, but they will rarely cause disease. Occasionally, these germs get past the body’s defences and cause infection.

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Are there different types of meningitis?

Yes. These are:

  • Viral meningitis – rarely life-threatening, although it can make people very unwell. Most people make a full recovery, but sufferers can be left with after-effects such as headaches, tiredness and memory loss
  • Bacterial meningitis – can be life-threatening and needs urgent medical attention. Most people who suffer from bacterial meningitis recover, but many can be left with after-effects, and one in 10 cases is fatal. Although rare, it’s important to be vigilant about meningitis because of the speed at which it strikes – it can kill within hours – and the difficulty in spotting the flu-like symptoms.

With babies and small children, who account for around half of all cases and are considered an ‘at risk’ group for the disease, spotting the symptoms can be hard as they can’t tell you how they’re feeling.

Meningococcal bacteria can cause both meningitis and septicaemia (bood poisoning), which can often happen together. In the early stages, symptoms can be similar to more common illnesses like flu; they can appear in any order and some may not appear at all, so be aware of all the signs and symptoms. If you suspect anything, seek medical help immediately.

What are the symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia?

  • Fever, cold hands and feet
  • Refusing food or vomiting
  • Fretful, dislike being handled
  • Limb and muscle pain
  • Drowsy, floppy, unresponsive
  • Rapid breathing or grunting
  • Pale, blotchy skin
  • Spots or a rash that does not fade when pressed with a glass
  • Unusual cry or moaning
  • Tense, bulging fonatnelle (soft spot)
  • Neck stiffness, dislike bright light
  • Convulsions, seizures

There are vaccines to protect against some strains, but not all, so knowing the symptoms to look out for is vital.

Don’t wait for the rash!

Worryingly, the Meningitis Trust has found that up to 71% of UK adults wrongly believe that the main symptom of meningitis is a rash.

This misconception, which has come about after the success of the ‘tumbler test’ message, is risking lives.

The rash that does not fade when pressed with a glass does not always appear and when it does, it can be one of the last symptoms to appear.

So while the rash is an important symptom, just because your child doesn’t have it, that doesn’t mean it’s not meningitis.

What should I do if I suspect my child has meningitis?

  • Know the symptoms and monitor your child. Trust your instincts – you know your child better than anyone else
  • Get medical help immediately – someone with meningitis or septicaemia can get a lot worse very quickly
  • Be persistent. Don’t be afraid to voice your fear. Be direct – ask, ‘Could it be meningitis?’

By making sure you have as much information as you can at your fingertips, you can feel confident in knowing what to do in the unlikely event your child should contract the disease.

The Meningitis Trust (meningitis-trust.org)has lots of useful information to help boost parents’ peace of mind, too, including free symptoms apps for smart phones, available from meningitisapp.co.uk and free credit card-sized symptoms cards to keep in your purse or wallet.

Call the Meningitis Trust free on 0800 028 1828 for symptoms cards, or log on to meningitis-trust.org/symptoms for more information.

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