It is the leading infectious cause of death in early childhood, with symptoms only too easily confused with other, lesser conditions.
But meningitis does not just afflict the very young – it can strike at any age with devastating, sometimes fatal, effects.
As many as 3,600 are affected in the UK and Ireland each year, with one in ten dying from the disease. A quarter of survivors are left with life-changing effects, from deafness to brain damage and loss of limbs.
And while babies are now vaccinated against some types of meningitis, it doesn’t mean immunity for life – because there are some very common strains that are not yet covered by the jab.
Although many people may be aware that a rash can be a key symptom, it is also the case that a rash does not occur in every case.
So how can you tell if meningitis – an inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord - has struck?
To mark Meningitis Awareness Week (September 17-23) the Meningitis Research Foundation is urging to people to be “Meningitis Wise” – and get clued up on the symptoms before it’s too late.
As the charity warns: “Anyone of any age can get meningitis.”
One survivor, Angela Keogh, tells how she contracted the illness at 19 – waking up “with a severe pain in my neck”, before starting to throw up and developing a rash on her stomach.
She says: “At work I gradually got worse [and] by the time I got home at about 5pm it had got really bad. I was hot and cold… I remember throwing my quilt off my bed and then not being able to pick it up again as it was too heavy.”
By the time her mother rang the doctor, Angela was finding moving a problem – then, rushed to hospital, she was diagnosed with meningitis. Luckily, she survived after a long course of antibiotics, a month off work, developing infections in her veins and suffering temporary hearing problems. “I think I was very lucky,” she says.
Tragically Andrew Sillett, also 19, was not lucky. The university student had fallen ill with a high temperature and sore throat, some neck stiffness, a headache and a slight rash on his arm.
His tutor rang for an ambulance but hospital staff guessed at a throat infection or glandular fever. It was only after blood tests came back overnight that staff realised how sick he was and prescribed antibiotics – but too late.
His mother Yvonne Sillett says: “Within an hour Andrew’s condition deteriorated quite markedly [and] his condition never improved. By the time we arrived at the hospital Andrew was on a ventilator and we were told that even if he did recover it was likely he had already suffered some brain damage.”
Unfortunately, symptoms of the disease may not always be clear-cut and are easily confused with other types of infection. And it can be so deadly that it can kill in hours.
Early warning signs to look out for include:
- fever over 38C
- severe headache
- rash anywhere on the body
- unusually cold hands and feet, or shivering
- pale or blotchy skin and blue lips
- pain in the muscles, joints or limbs, such as the legs or hands
As the condition worsens, later signs include:
- seizures or fits
- being unable to tolerate bright lights
- a stiff neck
- rapid breathing
- a blotchy red rash
In toddlers and babies, other symptoms can be refusing to eat or feed, being irritable and not wanting to be held or touched and a stiff body with jerky movements, or a floppy body, and being unable to stand up.
When a rash does occur, it may be blotchy and red and will not fade under the “tumbler test” – that is, if you press a glass tumbler firmly against the rash, the marks will not fade or pale.
There are, in fact, two common types of meningitis – bacterial, the most severe, which can lead to septicaemia or blood poisoning, and viral meningitis whose symptoms may be similar and may start out as flu-like.
But the only way to determine between the two is by clinical tests, so, as the NHS site notes: “Every case of suspected meningitis should be treated as an emergency.”
The Meningitis Research Foundation urges: “Meningitis and septicaemia are deadly diseases which can kill in hours. If you suspect a case of meningitis, seek medical help immediately by the quickest route possible, whether this is by contacting your GP, phoning an ambulance, or going to hospital.
“People are urged to trust their instincts and seek medical help as soon as they become concerned. Do not wait for a rash to develop, as this is a late sign of septicaemia and does not appear with some kinds of meningitis.”
MRF chief executive Christopher Head added: “We must remember that vaccines do not prevent all strains of meningitis and septicaemia yet, so it’s vitally important that everyone is Meningitis Wise and remains aware of the symptoms.”