What is it?
Meningitis is simply inflammation of the lining that covers the spinal cord (the meninges). Nine out of ten cases occur in children under five years, and it’s usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection.
How do you get it?
The most common cause of bacterial meningitis is Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus), which lives harmlessly in the nose and throat of about one in four people. It’s passed on through close contact, and only becomes a problem when these bacteria overcome our natural defences and get into the blood. It’s not clear why this happens in some cases and not others.
Different viruses, such as those that cause mumps, chickenpox and flu, can cause viral meningitis. It’s more common than the bacterial variety, but usually less serious.
What are the symptoms?
A rash is what distinguishes a meningitis infection the most. Small red or purple spots appear initially, and they may develop into flat blotches that look like bruises. The distinctive characteristic of a meningitis rash is that it doesn’t fade when you press on it, as most red rashes would.
You can test for this by pressing a glass firmly over the rash. If it doesn’t fade, get medical help immediately. The rash can appear anywhere and is a symptom of septicaemia (blood poisoning), not meningitis. But the bacteria that cause meningitis also cause septicaemia, so the two diseases often go hand-in-hand.
In babies, symptoms are:
*High-pitched and irritability.
*Floppiness or stiff, jerky movements. Convulsions or fits can sometimes develop.
*Bulging or tense fontanelle, the usually soft spot on the top of the baby’s head.
In young children, symptoms are:
*Pains and aches over the whole body.
*Stiff neck that hurts when the head is bent forwards.
In both babies and children, symptoms are:
* A severe headache, with an aversion to bright lights.
*A fever, often with cold hands and feet and pale or blotchy skin.
*Repeated vomiting and refusing to feed or have meals.
Not all these symptoms will occur at the same time, and if any child is becoming rapidly unwell you should seek urgent medical attention.
Which symptoms appear first?
Researchers at Oxford University found that 72% of a sample of 450 children with the infection had early signs of meningitis around eight hours before the better known symptoms – such as the rash, stiff neck and headache – appeared.
These early warning signs are:
*Severe leg pains.
*Cold hands and feet, when the child had a temperature.
*Pale or abnormal skin colour, possibly blue around the lips.
Can I prevent it?
Routine immunization protects children against some of the causes of meningitis, such as HIB, mumps and meningitis C. Meningitis has become significantly less common since these were introduced.
However most cases of bacterial meningitis in the UK are caused by group B meningococcal bacteria, and there’s no available vaccine to protect against it, so knowing the signs and symptoms can be vital.
The good news though is that from June 2006, for the first time ever, a routine pneumococcal vaccine is to become part of a baby’s immunization schedule. The pneumococcal infection is potentially deadly, and when it enters the bloodstream, it can cause serious illness like meningitis, blood poisoning and pneumonia.
For more vital information and advice on baby, toddler and child health issues, don’t miss Practical Parenting magazine each month.