Meningitis: It's a terrifying word, isn't it?
Meningitis can be very serious, so it is important to know the signs and, if you notice any of them, to react quickly.
What is it?
Meningitis is an infection of the membranes (meninges) surrounding the brain and spinal cord which can lead to damage of the nerves and brain. There are two types of meningitis: viral and bacterial.
The former is less serious - some people might have it and not even realise (they will experience nasty flu-like symptoms, which can be treated with rest, fluids and painkillers). The latter, although not very common (there are about 3,400 cases each year according to the Meningitis Research Foundation) can be very serious indeed, even life threatening. Both types of meningitis are caused by germs that are spread via coughs and sneezes, or by sharing toys or utensils, for example. The spread of bacterial meningitis requires very close contact (because the bacteria which cause it do not live for long outside the body).
Bacterial meningitis, in particular, needs to be treated as soon as possible. Early symptoms include muscle and joint pain, cold hands and feet, pale skin, a blue tinge to the lips, severe headache, seizures, and nausea or vomiting.
If your child has any of these symptoms accompanied by a fever, do not delay - go to A&E or call for an ambulance.
Understandably, sometimes the early symptoms of bacterial meningitis are mistaken for less serious illnesses, but the later symptoms will be unmistakable: confusion and drowsiness; rapid breathing; a stiff neck; intolerance of bright lights or daylight; and a red or purple rash.
The appearance of the rash is a sign that bacterial meningitis is progressing to septicaemia (blood poisoning), which can be life threatening. It will begin as small red pin pricks (these can be anywhere on the body) and develop into dark or purple bruise-like areas.
Of course babies and very young children are not able to tell you about what they are experiencing, and not every symptom will have a visible outward sign, so look for these telltale clues:
Unusual crying or moaning
Not wanting to feed or be held
Stiffness accompanied by jerking movements
A protruding fontanelle (in little babies).
What can I do?
If you see any of the above symptoms in your baby or child call 999 immediately. Do not assume that your child doesn't have meningitis if no rash is present, because a rash does not always appear.
The only rule with suspected meningitis is get help without delay. Trust your instincts - no medical professional will chastise you if it turns out to be something else. However, acting fast can mean a much, much better chance of survival and without any complications.
You might have heard of the glass test for the meningitis rash. A meningitis rash will not fade when pressed, so use a clear glass and push the side of it on to the discoloured area and roll. If the rash does not fade, call for an ambulance immediately, if you have not done so already.
If the doctors suspect bacterial meningitis after an initial examination, it is highly likely they will begin treatment with antibiotics before even carrying out tests to confirm it (this is because the results can take several hours to come back and, with bacterial meningitis, there is no time to lose).
Meningitis will be confirmed by the doctors taking blood and perhaps doing a lumbar puncture (whereby they extract some fluid from the spinal chord). Although it might be distressing for you to see your baby or child have these tests, stay strong and calm, because it is essential they are carried out as soon as possible.
If bacterial meningitis is diagnosed, your child will need to complete a course of antibiotics, which will be given via a drip. They will remain in hospital for observation and treatment until they are better and everyone in the household might be offered oral antibiotics to prevent the spread of the infection. If your little one has viral meningitis, they should get better within a couple of weeks, with lots of fluids, the correct dosage of paracetamol or ibuprofen and lots of cuddles to take the edge off the horridness.
In terms of limiting the likelihood of your child getting meningitis, there is one very important thing you can do: take them for all their immunisations.
The Hib, PCV and meningitis C vaccines are all offered to provide extra protection against infections which can lead to meningitis. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine yet against meningococcus group B, which most commonly causes bacterial meningitis, so hand-washing is your best line of defence.
The vast majority of people get better from meningitis quickly with the right treatment, but early diagnosis is absolutely key.
What else could it be?
There are a number of childhood illnesses which share the same (very) early symptoms as meningitis. However, if you suspect meningitis, do not delay - call for medical help immediately.
The Meningitis Research Foundation has further information about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. You can call their helpline free, 24 hours a day, on 080 880 3344 (or, if you are in the Republic of Ireland, call 1800 41 33 44).