Meningitis is a medical condition caused by inflammation of the meninges which are the protective coverings surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is caused by a variety of bacteria and viruses and the contagiousness of the illness depends on the type of microorganism involved.
Viral meningitis is rarely contagious and is usually a mild infection followed by a full recovery.
The most common cause of meningitis is the meningococcal bacterium and hence the infection is called meningococcal meningitis. This bacterium also causes meningococccal septicemia or blood poisoning. Together they are known as Meningococcal disease, 50% of all people who get a meningococcal infection will suffer both conditions.
Children under five and young people aged 15 – 24 are at highest risk of being affected. Meningitis is often seen in sporadic outbreaks in winter and spring, especially where young people are together in crowded conditions such as colleges and universities.
It is passed on from one to another by droplet spread (coughing and sneezing) or by direct contact with the nasopharyngeal secretions of infected persons.
The Haemophilus influenza bacterium was a common cause of meningitis in children but they are now immunized as babies and so is not often seen now.
Recognition of Meningitis
The symptoms and signs are not all present at the same time. They include:
- Flu-like illness with high temperature
- Cold hands and feet
- Joint and limb pain
- Mottled or pale skin
As the infection develops:
- Severe headache
- Neck stiffness
- Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
- In infants, a high pitched moaning or whimpering cry, floppiness and tense or bulging fontanelle (soft part of the skull)
- A distinctive rash of red or purple spots that do not fade when pressed The rash usually occurs at a late stage of the illness
Meningococcal septicemia often accompanies meningococcal meningitis and is a very serious condition. It occurs when bacteria in the bloodstream multiply and produce poisons which attack the blood vessels so that blood leaks out. As blood is lost in this way, the circulatory system begins to shut down. Unless this process is reversed by medical treatment, the person will go into shock leading to heart failure or multiple organ failure and ultimately death.