Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the brain and it can be caused by several different germs. Some are bacterial and some are viruses. Meningitis caused by a virus (viral meningitis) is generally less serious. The bacterial germs can cause septicemia (blood poisoning or infection of the blood) as well as meningitis. Anyone of any age can get meningitis or septicemia and the tow illnesses can occur at teh same time. If the illness is diagnosed early and treated quickly, most people recover completely.
Bacterial meningitis is quite rare, but can be very serious. There are three main types, named after the germs that can cause the illness. The three types are:
Hemophilus influenza type b (known as Hib)
Immunization against Hib infection is now possible. Children are immunized at two, three and four months - at the same time as diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus and polio. If you do not remember your child being immunized, and he or she is under four, you should contact your doctor.
Each year there are over 2000 cases of bacterial meningitis in England and Wales. This figure is lower that it was because of the success of the Hib vaccine (the most common type of meningitis in children under four used to be Hib). The meningococcal germ is now the most common cause of meningitis and septicemia in all age groups. Young people and adults also get the pneumococcal form of meningitis and septicemia.
The germs that cause bacterial meningitis are very common and live naturally in the back of the nose and throat. Coughing, sneezing and kissing spread the germs, but they do not live for more than a few seconds outside the body and are not easily passed from one person to another. People of any age can carry them for weeks or months without becoming ill. It is only rarely that they overcome the body's defenses by entering the blood from the throat causing meningitis or septicemia. You cannot get the germs from water supplies, swimming pools, factories or buildings.
People with meningitis or septicemia usually have a rash which can be anything from tiny red spots to larhe blotchy bruises. If you press a drinking glass against their rash it will remain visible through the glass (whereas rashes that occur with most other infections will fade or blanch). Their skin may be pale and clammy, even though they have a fever.
Besides a rash, the other symptoms that may be found in cases of meningitis are: fever, vomiting, severe headache, still neck, dislike of bright lights, impaired consciousness or excessive drowsiness. The symptoms of septicemia are similar, though the rash is always present; the headache is not so severe; a stiff neck and dislike of bright lights are not usually found.
If you are worried someone may have meningitis or septicemia you should seek medical help immediately.