Meningitis literally translated means inflammation. It is the inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord – the meninges. It can be caused by many different organisms including bacteria, viruses, fungi and amoeba. Some bacteria that cause meningitis can also cause septicaemia (blood poisoning), this is when the bacteria enter the bloodstream and multiplies uncontrollably. This is most often seen with meningococcal meningitis, causing meningococcal septicaemia.
Types of Meningitis
One of the most common causes of meningitis all over the world is the meningococcal bacterium and this has five main groups - A, B, C, W135 and Y.
- Meningococcal - The bacteria are very common and live naturally in the back of the nose and throat, or the upper respiratory tract. People of any age can carry the bacteria for days, weeks or months without becoming ill. In fact, being a carrier helps to boost natural immunity. At any one time, around 10 to 25 per cent of the population are carriers of meningococcal bacteria. Only rarely do the bacteria overcome the body's defences and cause meningitis. The incubation period is between two and ten days.
- Meningococcal bacteria can cause both meningitis and septicaemia (blood poisoning). Together these are known as meningococcal disease. Meningococcal septicaemia can happen with meningitis or on its own. Septicaemia is generally more life threatening than meningitis and can also be caused by other germs. If the meningococcus invades the body, it enters from the throat, passes into the bloodstream and travels via the blood to the meninges (the lining of the brain). In some cases, the bacteria multiply in the blood and this results in septicaemia before the bacteria can infect the meninges. When the bacteria multiply rapidly in the blood stream they release toxins (poisons) that may damage blood vessels, tissues and all the organs of the body. In other cases, infection in the blood and in the meninges develops at the same time, and these patients get both meningitis and septicaemia. In a minority of cases, it seems the body can stop the bacteria multiplying in the blood but not in the meninges, and these patients develop meningitis. Fatality rates for septicaemia are high - around 20 per cent.
- Pneumococcal Meningitis - is a life-threatening infectious disease that causes inflammation of the layers surrounding the brain and spinal cord. These layers are called the meninges – they help to protect the brain from injury and infection. Although uncommon, it can strike unexpectedly and the consequences are often severe. Approximately 20% of cases of pneumococcal disease will result in death.
Pneumococcal meningitis is caused by a bacterium called the pneumococcus (Streptococcus pneumoniae). There are over 90 strains (or serotypes), but of these only a small number have been shown to cause disease. The pneumococcus can also cause other serious infections such as septic arthritis and blood poisoning, and less serious infections such as otitis media, glue ear, sinusitis and chest infections. Together these are known as pneumococcal disease or pneumococcal infection.
- Neo natal - Some forms of meningitis particularly affect new-born babies. The most common are E.coli (Escherichia coli) and group B streptococcus (Streptococcus agalactiae). Fatality rates can be as high as 20%, but these forms are rare. Many babies are exposed to the bacteria, but few become ill. The risks are higher for premature babies, or those born after a long or difficult labour. E. coli - These bacteria are commonly found in the intestines. They can often cause urinary tract infections and diarrhoea. More rarely they cause meningitis in new-born babies. Streptococcal - Severe illness caused by group B streptococcal bacteria can affect babies soon after birth. The bacteria are found naturally in the vagina of about one in five expectant mothers and may occasionally infect the baby before or during labour. The illness can also occur later, up to two months after delivery, when infection may be from other people. (The bacteria can be found in the throats and intestines of people of all ages.)
The consequences of meningitis can be fatal and emergency medical treatment should be sought. Any delay in receiving medical treatment could give rise to a claim for medical negligence.
What are the signs and symptoms of Meningitis?
Meningitis and septicaemia are not always easy to recognise at first. In the early stages, signs and symptoms can be similar to many other more common mild illnesses, for example flu.
The following can be an indication of meningitis or septicaemia but this is not an exhaustive list:
- Fever, vomiting
- Limb, muscle or joint pain
- Cold hands and feet
- Pale or mottled skin
- Breathing fast
- Very sleeply
- Stiff neck
- Dislike of bright lights
- High temperature
Time is of the essence with meningitis and any delay in diagnosis and providing appropriate antibiotics can have devastating consequences. If you or a member of your family have suffered meningitis or septicaemia and believe that diagnosis or treatment was delayed you may potentially have a claim for medical negligence and be entitled to compensation. Contact Head Injury UK for a no obligation review.