Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by many different organisms, but most commonly viruses and bacteria.
Viral meningitis can make people very unwell, but is rarely life-threatening. Most people make a good recovery, but sufferers can be left with after-effects such as headaches, tiredness and memory loss.
Bacterial meningitis is life-threatening; some bacteria that cause meningitis can also cause septicaemia (blood poisoning). Most people recover, but many are left with debilitating after-effects such as deafness, brain damage and limb loss.
Meningitis can affect anyone of any age, but children under 5, students and people over 55 are at most risk.
Half of all cases of meningitis are in babies and pre-school children, in the UK bacterial meningitis kills more children under 5 years old than any other infectious disease.
Young children are vulnerable because their immune system is not yet fully developed and so it is more difficult for them to fight infection. Babies can’t tell you how they are feeling and their health can quickly turn for the worse.
Teenagers and young adults
Over 12% of all cases occur in the 14 – 24 age group, with first year university students being at particular risk. One in four 15 – 19 year olds carry meningococcal bacteria that can cause meningitis in the back of their throats, compared to one in ten of the UK population. Meningococcal bacteria are passed from person to person by coughing, sneezing and intimate kissing, increased social interaction in this age and group means that the bacteria can be passed on more easily. University students can be more vulnerable due to living in more cramped housing or halls of residence.
The symptoms of meningitis can be hidden or confused with common illnesses like flu, or maybe a hangover, so, it’s easy to mistake meningitis for something else. Students need to make sure they let someone know if they’re feeling unwell, ask them to check regularly and get help quickly if needed.
People over 55 are also at risk of getting ill because our immune system weakens, as we get older.
Vaccination is the only way to prevent meningitis. Routine vaccines are available to prevent some types of meningitis, check with your GP to ensure you are up-to-date with all your vaccinations.
Meningitis can strike quickly and kill within hours, so urgent medical attention is essential.
Be aware of all the signs and symptoms, which are explained in another of our BSL Health videos on this page. These BSL health clips were made by SignHealth with help and information from Meningitis Now. They also kindly supplied the pictures. If you need more information or advice, visit www.meningitisnow.org