Meningitis - know the risks

Another wet August Bank Holiday weekend is over, which means back-to-school is here again. For many thousands of teenagers, it's back to college or university - and the return of a rare-but-deadly health risk they need to be aware of.

Meningitis is caused by a bacterial or viral infection. The bacterial form can be fatal and causes serious long-term health complications, especially if it's not treated early. Unfortunately, getting help soon enough can be difficult, as symptoms can progress very fast.

This means everyone should be aware of the risks and warning symptoms. Children under the age of five are the single group most likely to get meningitis, but teenagers also need to be on high alert, since they are the second most common group. Living close together in shared student accommodation may pose a special risk. Every autumn, the Meningitis Trust carries out a college and university awareness campaign to remind students that Fresher's week shouldn't be the only thing on their minds.

Pretty much every parent of young children I see in my surgery knows it's a condition to fear, and most know the 'classic' warning symptoms of headache, stiff neck and not liking the light.

However, babies and young children may not get these symptoms. In them, other early warning symptoms should set alarm bells ringing. These include:

  • High fever, but cold hands and feet
  • Leg pains, which can be severe
  • Looking blue around the lips
  • A blotchy rash which doesn't fade when you press a glass against it

This blotchy rash, which can spread with terrifying speed, is absolutely a medical emergency. It means that an infection with meningococcus - one of the most deadly bacteria which causes meningitis - has spread to the bloodstream, causing blood poisoning or septicaemia

Childhood immunisation has helped to reduce the number of cases of bacterial meningitis. Although there is no vaccine for the Meningitis B bacterium, all babies are now offered immunisation against Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), Group C meningococcus and pneumococcus. Since the Meningitis C vaccine was routinely introduced into the childhood immunisation schedule, there has been a 99% drop in confirmed cases among the under 20s.

All this is good news for babies and their parents, but there's no room for complacency. Most teenagers leaving for college today weren't immunised against meningitis C because the vaccine was only introduced for all babies in 1999. They should get an immunisation from their GP before they start college or university. As for the rest of us, meningitis may be less common but it still happens. Knowing the signs - and acting on them urgently - could still save lives.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.