main banner

How-To-Spot-The-Symptoms-Of-Bacterial-Meningitis

How To Spot The Symptoms Of Bacterial Meningitis

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare – the word meningitis can strike fear into most people’s hearts. This is understandable since Ireland has the highest rate of meningococcal disease in the E.U, with about 170 cases of Meningitis B diagnosed each year. Invasive meningococcal disease is the most common form of bacterial meningitis in Ireland, causing up to 90% of the cases. This disease may present as meningitis, septicaemia (blood poisoning) or both.

If dealt with promptly, meningitis can be treated successfully. So it’s important to get routine vaccinations, know the signs of meningitis, and if you suspect that your child has the illness, seek medical care right away.

What is bacterial meningitis

Meningitis is an inflammation of the covering around the brain and spinal cord. It is usually caused by an infection.

The infection occurs most often in children, teens and young adults. Also at risk are older adults and people who have long-term health problems, such as a weakened immune system. Bacterial meningitis is very serious. It needs to be treated right away to prevent brain damage and death.

There are many different bacteria that can cause meningitis; the most common are:

  • Meningococcal
  • Pneumococcal
  • Hib
  • TB
  • Neonatal – including Group B Streptococcal and E.coli

What are the symptoms?

Babies and young children
Babies and young children are the most at-risk group for meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia. Knowing meningitis signs and symptoms, trusting your instincts and getting medical help immediately can save lives:

  • Fever, cold hands and feet
  • Refusing food and vomiting
  • Fretful, dislike of being handled
  • Drowsy, floppy, unresponsive
  • Rapid breathing or grunting
  • Pale, blotchy skin. Spots/rash
  • Unusual cry, moaning
  • Tense, bulging fontanelle
  • Neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights
  • Convulsions/seizures

Children and teenagers
While children under five are the most at risk group for meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia, teenagers and young adults (16-25) are the next at-risk group. Again, knowing the signs and symptoms, and getting medical help fast, are crucial.

Symptoms can appear in any order. Some may not appear at all.

  • Fever, cold hands and feet
  • Vomiting
  • Drowsy, difficult to wake
  • Confusion and irritability
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Pale, blotchy skin. Spots/rash
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Dislike of bright lights
  • Convulsions/Seizures

Meningitis rash – the glass test

A rash that does not fade under pressure is a sign of meningococcal septicaemia. It is normally referred to as the meningitis rash. If someone is ill and getting worse, do not wait for a rash. It can appear late or not at all. A fever with spots or a rash that does not fade under pressure is a medical emergency.

How to do a glass test

Take an ordinary clear glass (or plastic) tumbler. Place it on the skin next to the spots/rash. Roll it onto the spots/rash, applying firm pressure. Note that the normal skin under the glass goes white as the blood is pushed out of the tiny surface blood vessels.

If the spots fade when the glass is rolled over them, the rash may not be serious, but keep checking, it can develop into a rash that does not fade. If the spots/rash doesn’t fade, it is a non-blanching rash, and needs urgent medical attention. The rash is more difficult to see on dark skin. Look on paler areas of the skin and under the eyelids.

What exactly is the meningitis rash?

As meningococcal bacteria multiply in the bloodstream, they begin to release endotoxins (poisons) from their outer coating. The body’s natural defences have little effect on these poisons and eventually blood vessels become damaged. As septicaemia advances, it affects the whole body and can cause organ damage or failure. The rash associated with septicaemia is caused by blood leaking into tissues under the skin. It’s important to know that septicaemia can also cause other, more specific symptoms to look out for (as well as the rash):

  • Fever with cold hands and feet
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Rapid breathing
  • Stomach cramps and diarrhoea

How is bacterial meningitis treated?

Bacterial meningitis needs urgent treatment with antibiotics and rapid admission to hospital. Whilst in hospital, other treatments, procedures and investigations will be carried out depending on the patient’s condition.

One of the main investigations carried out to test if someone has meningitis is a lumbar puncture. This allows the doctor to quickly make a diagnosis of meningitis by analysing the CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) that protect the brain and spinal cord. This fluid becomes infected when a patient has meningitis.

Sometimes treatment with antibiotics is started because the patient’s condition is too serious for a lumbar puncture to be performed. In these cases, the lumbar puncture can be done when the patient’s condition has improved. If someone is seriously ill, they will require specialist care and treatment in an intensive care unit. Here, the doctors and nurses can closely monitor the condition, respond to emergencies and provide support when it is needed. Appropriate hospital care and treatment are essential if the patient is to make a good recovery.

Can meningitis be prevented?

There are a number of vaccines that can prevent many cases of viral and bacterial meningitis. They include:

  • The measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination
  • The Meningitis C vaccination
  • The Meningitis B vaccination
  • The 6-in-1 vaccine, which provides protection against the Hib virus, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, hepatitis A and polio
  • The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV)
  • The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPV)

Children should receive these vaccines as part of their childhood vaccination programme. Speak to your GP if you are not sure whether you or your child’s vaccinations are up to date.

Older people should get the pneumococcal vaccine when they reach 65 years of age. Speak to your GP if you are not sure if you have got all the vaccines that can help you avoid infection.

For more information go to meningitis.org, or call 1800 413344 or on HSE.ie


About the Author

Emily is a writer, editor, blogger, and our Digital Content Assistant. She has three awesome nieces, and has accidentally worn the same outfit as them on at least one occasion. Emily likes making things, including hand-drawn cards, and a darn good chocolate cake. She still sounds very English, despite living in Dublin for the last nine years. More insight into the workings of her brain can be found on dancingcakesandsilence.blogspot.com.

Comments

Please login to leave a comment.