An infection may begin in one part of the body, such as the throat or lungs before spreading through the blood to other parts of the body. Usually, the brain is protected from infection by the blood-brain barrier which filters out impurities in the blood before allowing it into the brain.
In some cases, however, the infection is able to pass through the membrane causing the meninges to become infected. The meninges swell as the body’s immune system responds in an attempt to stop the spread of infection. This swelling of the meninges may cause serious damage to the brain and nervous system.
The bacteria that cause meningitis are common and live naturally in the back of the nose and throat. People of any age may carry the germs without becoming ill. In fact, usually these bacteria are beneficial to us as they help to build up a natural level of immunity to the disease. It is rare that these bacteria overcome the body’s natural defences and cause meningitis.
There are two different types of meningitis; viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis.
Viral meningitis is the much more common, milder form of the infection. It can be treated at home in most cases, and is often mistaken for flu. Viral meningitis is most common among children in the summer time. Kids with viral meningitis usually recover well within 5-14 days.
Bacterial meningitis is much more severe than viral meningitis and can be fatal if not dealt with promptly. Bacterial meningitis requires immediate admission to hospital and intravenous antibiotics in order to treat the infection. Blood poisoning, severe brain damage and death can follow if left untreated.
It is only possible to tell the difference between the two forms of meningitis through clinical tests. A doctor will carry out a physical examination, as well as blood test and a lumbar puncture. These tests will determine whether the infection is viral or bacterial.
The symptoms of both types of meningitis are often identical. For this reason, if you suspect your child may have meningitis, it is important to seek immediate medical care.
It is also important to be aware that not everyone suffering from bacterial meningitis will develop the well known rash so do not wait for this to appear.
The symptoms of meningitis include:
If dealt with promptly, bacterial meningitis can be treated successfully.
Bacterial meningitis is treated through intravenous antibiotics. If the IV antibiotics work well, patients may be in hospital for a week or less. However, severely ill patients may be in hospital for a few weeks or even months. In some cases, those suffering from bacterial meningitis may be transferred to an intensive care unit. Oxygen, IV fluids or steroids may also be given to help reduce swelling and treat the infection.
Viral meningitis usually gets better without treatment. However plenty of rest, painkillers and anti sickness medicine may be taken to help with headaches, nausea and vomiting.
Currently, there are vaccinations available and recommended in Ireland to fight against group C meningococcal bacteria. However, there is not yet a vaccination to protect against group B bacteria, of which most cases are caused by.
According to the European Centres for Disease Control and Prevention Surveillance Report, Ireland has the highest rate of meningitis B notifications in Europe, with 89 cases in 2011. For this reason, doctors have highlighted the need for new vaccination strategies.
There are a number of vaccines available that will help to prevent many cases of bacterial meningitis. According to the HSE, they include:
The meningitis C vaccination is given to children at four and six months of age, with a third dose at 13 months. For more information regarding the vaccine, click here.
ACT for Meningitis is a charity which aims to raise awareness and educate society about the signs and symptoms of meningitis. Visit their website for more information.