Dr Phil Dyer talks about Meningitis

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Monthly Health Heartlands Hospital

Unfortunately, there are several types of bacteria or viruses that have the potential to cause meningitis. Fortunately, there are many signals for you to look out for and once diagnosed, treatment is available.

Meningitis is infection of the meninges. There are approximately 3500-4000 reported cases per year in the UK. The meninges are the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). They act as a barrier between the central nervous system and the rest of the body, acting as an extra barrier to infection.

Bacterial meningitis is caused by several different types of germs which live naturally at the back of the nose and throat and can be spread by close prolonged contact, coughing, sneezing and often kissing. Only in some, will the germs overwhelm the body’s defences and cause meningitis.

In the UK, the most common cause of bacterial meningitis is infection by the meningococcal or pneumococcal bacteria. Both are considered a medical emergency and need immediate treatment with antibiotics, together with admission to hospital.

Viral meningitis may be caused by viruses such as coxsackie, herpes simplex, mumps, the varicella zoster virus of chickenpox and shingles, poliovirus, echoviruses (including enterovisuses). Germs are normally spread through coughing, sneezing, poor hygiene or sewage polluted water.

Viral meningitis is a less severe illness out of the two but can still be very debilitating. Very rarely, it can progress through headache, fever and drowsiness to deep coma. The incubation period for viral meningitis can be up to 3 weeks. Viral meningitis is rarely life-threatening, but can still make people very unwell. Viral meningitis is most common in young adults and tends to occur in small outbreaks; particularly in schools and colleges. It is important to have any symptoms checked by a doctor immediately.

Most people with viral meningitis recover without needing hospital treatment.

Urgent treatment with antibiotics and appropriate hospital management is essential for someone with bacterial meningitis. The sooner they are diagnosed and treated, the greater chance there is, that they will make a full recovery. Anyone who has been in direct, close, prolonged contact with the infected person (normally family members and those deemed to be at an increased risk) should be given appropriate protective antibiotics if necessary.

As many of the symptoms of meningitis can be difficult to identify, it is critical that you are aware of the danger signs.

If someone becomes unwell they may deteriorate quickly so medical advice must be sought if you suspect meningitis, or septicaemia.

Vaccines are available against certain types of bacterial meningitis. These are meningococci groups A and C and against Haemophilus influenzae (Hib), which can also cause meningitis. Meningococcal C and HiB now form part of the routine national immunisation schedule for child health.

Those who have been in close contact with someone who has recently been diagnosed with types A or C of bacterial meningitis should be vaccinated against.

If you have any questions or concerns about Meningitis, please contact your local GP or NHS Direct 0845 4647.

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