Why You NEED to Know the Symptoms of Meningitis

Sharon Tighe

April 3, 2022

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Meningitis is an infection of the membranes surrounding the spinal cord and the brain. It can kill within hours and can affect anyone of any age. Ireland has the highest incident of Meningitis per capita in Europe and there are currently no vaccinations against all the different strains of the disease. However, the most serious forms can be prevented – which is why you need to know the symptoms of Meningitis.

What is Meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the fluid and membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. There are three main types of Meningitis infection:

  • Bacterial
  • Viral
  • Fungal/environmental

World Meningitis Day takes place every year (previously in April, now in October), aiming to encourage individuals, families and communities to learn:

  • The signs and symptoms of meningitis
  • The importance of urgent treatment of the disease
  • That prevention is available through vaccination against some forms of Meningitis.

Simply put, awareness can save lives. We have teamed up with Irish charity ACT for Meningitis to bring you the facts that could save your child’s life.

How Do You Get Meningitis?

The bacteria that cause Meningitis live in the nose and throat. This bacteria is spread through coughing, sneezing, kissing, etc.

It is not yet known why some people are affected by Meningitis, but people with a weaker immune system are most at risk. For example, children under 5 are the most at-risk age group to contact meningitis, followed next by adolescents and college-age students.

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Is Meningitis Contagious?

Some strains of bacterial Meningitis can be contagious. A spread of the bacteria can occur if a person is in close contact with someone who has Meningitis for prolonged periods of time.

How Does it Affect People?

Infants and children under five years old and adolescents between 15 and 19 years of age are most at risk. But anyone in the world can get Meningitis at any time.

The effect Meningitis has on a person can differ depending on their age, health and the severity and cause of the disease.

What Are the Symptoms of Meningitis in Adults and Children?

Flu or Meningitis

Meningitis can be hard to recognise in the early stages.

IMPORTANT: Do not wait for a rash!

It is a common misperception that Meningitis always produces a rash. However, in many cases a rash is not present at all or appears at a very late stage of the infection taking hold.

Symptoms can be similar to those of the common flu and can develop quickly, over a matter of hours. They include:

  • Fever/cold hands and feet
  • Vomiting
  • Difficult to wake
  • Confusion/irritability/aggression
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Stomach cramps/Diarrhoea
  • Spots/rash/blotchy skin
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Dislike of bright lights
  • Seizures/uncontrolled movements
  • Difficulty breathing

What Are the Symptoms of Meningitis in Babies and Toddlers?

Babies and toddlers may not be able to tell you that they feel unwell or that a particular part is sore. It is important to pay attention to these signs and symptoms if you are concerned:

  • Arching of the back
  • Blank, staring expression
  • Pale/blotchy skin/turn blue
  • Sleepy/refusing to feed
  • Irritable
  • Spots/Rash
  • Limp/Floppy Child
  • Not easily consoled
  • High pitch crying
  • Cold hands/feet
  • Bulging soft spot on head
  • High temperature
  • Rapid breathing/moaning
  • Diarrhoea

Remember: Not all symptoms may be present.

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How is Meningitis Treated?

Unfortunately, Meningitis is a medical emergency. It can develop quickly, over a matter of a few hours. In order to diagnose Meningitis, doctors may do a blood test and take a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (the watery fluid that flows in and around the brain and spinal cord).

Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial Meningitis is life threatening. If you have been admitted to hospital with bacterial Meningitis you will first receive antibiotics intravenously. The hospital will continue to administer antibiotics until the infection is cured, which can take up to 2 weeks.

Viral Meningitis

Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial Meningitis and is not life threatening. Antibiotics are not very useful in curing viral Meningitis and usually the infection resolves itself. The hospital is likely to administer painkillers and fluids to prevent dehydration.

What Are the After-Effects of Meningitis?

1 in 5 people who survive meningitis will suffer with after-effects. These can range in severity from headaches and memory loss to more extreme deafness and limb loss.

Meningitis is categorised as a brain injury and can have a long-lasting affect on a person’s ability to think and learn. However, in many cases the problems Meningitis cause do improve or disappear altogether.

After-effects and complications are more common with bacterial Meningitis. Viral Meningitis is a mild illness and after-effects occur more often in newborn infants and in the elderly rather than in children, adolescents or adults.

Where Can I Find Out More About Meningitis?

In Ireland, ACT for Meningitis offers a wide range of free support services to those affected by Meningitis. Services include free counselling for families or individuals who have been affected by Meningitis and free family support days aimed at bringing families together to share their experiences of Meningitis.

They also distribute hundreds of Meningitis awareness cards around the country every week and give free Meningitis awareness presentations to groups.

For further information about ACT for Meningitis visit www.actformeningitis.ie

The Confederation of Meningitis Organisations Inc. (CoMO) is an international member organisation working to reduce the incidence and impact of meningitis worldwide. It represents 43 member organisations across 28 countries around the world. Find a member organisation in your country or region.

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