One of the words you never want to hear. Meningitis. Having had first-hand experience with this awful disease, I know exactly what to look for and how quickly this can take over someone. I lost my mother to Meningococcal Meningitis when I was 16 and as you can imagine, this was the worst thing I ever experienced. Losing your mother at any age is just horrific, and to lose someone to such a horrible disease is heart wrenching. For her, it started with a headache and photosensitivity – no rash was present. Health Professionals always tell you to look for the rash as one of the first signs but this is not always the case. It is essential to trust your instincts and pay close attention to every symptom. The symptoms of meningitis include: a fever with cold hands and feet, vomiting, drowsiness and difficult to wake, confusion and irritability, severe muscle pain and severe headache, pale and blotchy skin with spots and a rash, stiff neck, a dislike to bright lights (my mother got to the point where she had to wear her sunglasses in the house), and convulsions and seizures. Please, NEVER wait for the rash to appear.
However, as you would expect, the rash is a very common symptom and a simple glass test could get you the urgent medical attention needed a lot quicker.
The Glass Test: A rash that does not fade under the pressure of a glass, looking like a lot of tiny pin pricks, could be a sign septicaemia. This can then develop into purple bruising. You press the side of a clear glass firmly against the skin, the rash may fade at first but it is essential to keep checking. If a fever is present with a rash that does not fade this is a medical emergency.
Meningitis can take over within a matter of hours so the sooner it is detected, the quicker you can get the correct treatment.
I cannot stress enough to trust your instincts.
When my mother contracted this at the age of 40, she lost her fight within 24 hours of diagnosis with not a rash insight. Before I lost her, I didn’t really know too much about it all, only that I was vaccinated against certain strains.
Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Some of the bacteria that causes meningitis also cause septicaemia (blood poisoning) which unfortunately, she contracted too.
Most cases of meningitis occur in isolation and it is very rare to catch it from someone who is already ill. 97 out of 100 cases have no links to other cases. However, the bacteria that cause the disease are very common, with 1 in 10 of us carrying it in the back of our throats and noses but it being completely harmless. For the bacteria to pass between people, the contact would have to be really close and spread through things like kissing and sneezing. Most of us have immunity against this and it is not yet clear as to why some of us get ill from germs that are harmless most of us. The age groups most likely to be affected are 0-5 years, 15-24 years, and those over 45 but this is obviously not limited. The bacteria cannot be carried on things such as clothing and dishes as it cannot live longer than a few moments outside of the body.
The incubation period for meningitis is roughly 5 days from picking up the bacteria.
There are more types and causes of meningitis than you may know about, but the most common in the UK are viral and bacterial. Viral meningitis is very rarely life threatening with thousands of cases occurring every year. This strain is the most common in babies and young children. With no specific treatment for this strain, it is advised that rest, painkillers and plenty of fluids are taken after medical attention.
Bacterial meningitis requires an urgent hospital admission. This strain is treated with antibiotics and the sooner it is detected, the less of the chance it is to becoming life threatening. Once again, babies and young children are at higher risk due to their immune systems not being fully developed. However, teenagers and young adults during their first year of university are also at increased risk.
The bacteria’s commonly known to cause meningitis include:
- Meningococcal – This is a life threatening bacteria and describes meningitis and septicaemia occurring at the same time. In the past decade it is reported that between 700 and 1300 cases of this strain strike each year in the UK. 5 to 10% of these cases will result in death and those that survive, 15% can be left with severe and disabling after effects including hearing and sight loss, brain damage and possible loss of limbs and damage to major internal organs if septicaemia has occurred alongside.
- Pneumococcal – This is also life threatening and causes inflammation of the layers that surround the brain and spinal cord called the meninges. These help to protect the brain from injury and infection. There are only around 200 reported cases in the UK a year mainly occurring in babies up to the age of 18 months. The elderly and people with low immune systems are also at increased risk. 15% of these cases result in death.
- TB Meningitis – This is caused by Mycobacterium Tuberculosis which usually begins in the lungs. 150 to 200 cases are reported yearly in the UK. This strain is more likely to affect those living in poor conditions such as the homeless and those with other infections such as HIV. At least 20% will suffer with long term after effects which are often severe and may include brain damage and epilepsy amongst others.
- Group B Strep – Also known as neonatal meningitis, which occurs in the first 28 days of life. With 300 cases of this reported yearly, 10 to 12% of these are fatal and up to 50% may be left with after effects.
Bacterial meningitis cases tend to rise during the winter months and viral cases during the summer months.
There are a variety of different websites about meningitis, with a lot of useful information, fact sheets and symptom checkers. These include:
Meningitisnow.org, whom I have found so helpful in the past and fundraised for.
And the NHS website is also a great help too with a lot information about the vaccinations offered.