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Get fighting fit after meningitis

If you - or someone you know - suffered from meningitis, you’ll know it’s a serious disease. Sadly, recovery is not as simple as getting over a bout of flu and could carry some serious side effects.

But you can learn how to manage your recovery so you come out fighting fit. Here's what to expect.

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The different types of meningitis

There are two main types of meningitis - bacterial, which is caused by bacteria, and viral, caused by viruses. Official figures show around the same number of cases of bacterial and viral meningitis, but the true incidence of viral is thought to be much higher as many people may not report it.

Bacterial is often the more serious disease; it's associated with a longer recovery and a higher chance of longer-lasting after effects. This doesn't mean viral meningitis can't have a longer-term impact on health - a survey commissioned in 2013 by the Meningitis Trust found some sufferers of viral meningitis also reported problems like headaches, memory loss, hearing problems and depression. However, these after effects are more likely when the illness is caused by bacterial infection.

Tiredness and fatigue

The first thing you're likely to notice is fatigue - partly because your body has been working hard to fight your illness - but if you were in intensive care as part of your treatment, some of your tiredness in the first weeks of recovery could be related to that.

"Being in intensive care where the lights are bright, there's a lot of disruption and you don't have a regular night and day routine, disrupts your sleep patterns. This can leave you tired, irritable and with problems concentrating," says Claire Wright, evidence and policy manager for the Meningitis Research Foundation.

While your sleep patterns will naturally readjust with time, thinking of your symptoms partly as 'hospital jetlag' - and tackling them just as you would a time change on holiday - may help you feel better more quickly.

Going out in daylight, or sitting by the window, first thing in the morning, eating at regular mealtimes, and limiting exposure to blue light from devices like laptops or tablets late at night will all help re-establish your body clock's natural routine.

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Build up slowly

"The fatigue that occurs after meningitis can be deceptive; you'll start to feel you're OK and can do things, but all of a sudden you'll need to sit down as you feel drained," says Wright. "That's normal and to be expected."

Trying to push through these feelings is not recommended as you can become more run-down. Instead, experts suggest using what's known as 'staged return' where you gradually add things like studies, socialising, sport or work back into your life one at a time, rather than jumping into everything at once.

Sadly, there's no magic diet or supplement that can put you on the road to recovery faster - no matter what claims you might find online - "but sensible advice like eating a healthy balanced diet isn't going to hurt," says Wright.

Can you see people?

It's fine for friends to come to visit once you're recovering. Some types of meningitis are contagious, but normally only for 10-14 days after infection and it takes close contact like kissing or sneezing on someone to pass on the germs.

You could encourage your friends to get the meningitis jab if they're worried about their health and safety. However, this will only vaccinate them against the bacterial infection as there is no immunisation against viral meningitis.

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The after-effects of meningitis

The effects of meningitis don't only occur in the few weeks after recovery; one in seven people who had meningitis caused by infection with meningococcal bacteria end up with severe after effects.

These include problems such as hearing loss, memory problems, difficulties with balance, and emotional issues associated with neurological damage caused by the disease. Other problems like bone or tissue damage are associated with septicaemia or blood poisoning that can occur with bacterial meningitis.

Sufferers of viral meningitis may also suffer from some after effects, so it's important to tell your doctors if you do notice symptoms such as headaches, hearing problems or memory loss.

Because some symptoms may only appear after you leave hospital, it's important to attend a follow-up appointment in about four to six weeks. "If you do experience any complications, your doctor should suggest a rehabilitation plan to help you recover as quickly and effectively as possible," says Wright.

The long-term impact

Most people make a good recovery from meningitis if it is treated early enough, and you shouldn't be unlucky enough to catch it again. Don't worry that you’ll be more likely to catch other infections either - experts say you have no heightened risk.

You may find the Befriending programme, offered by the Meningitis Research Foundation, helpful after recovery. This puts people who have had similar experiences in touch by phone to discuss the impact the infection has had on their lives.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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