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Meningitis and septicaemia in adults

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges - the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord.

Babies and young children are most at risk of getting meningitis, but it can affect anyone. Meningitis sometimes causes a serious type of blood poisoning called septicaemia.

  • About meningitis
  • About septicaemia
  • Symptoms
  • Complications
  • Causes
  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment
  • Prevention
  • Further information
  • Sources
  • Related topics

About meningitis

Meningitis is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection.

Everybody carries bacteria and viruses harmlessly in their nose and throat. But occasionally, specific types can overcome the body's immune system and cause meningitis. The infections can be spread through close contact, eg from kissing, coughs and sneezes.

These bacteria and viruses are very common and only cause meningitis rarely. No one fully understands why babies and young children are more likely to get meningitis yet, but it's probably because their immune systems are less developed. For more information on meningitis in children, please see Related topics.

Sometimes meningitis can be a complication of another infection, or a head injury or brain surgery. Very rarely, it can be caused by a fungal infection or amoeba.

About septicaemia

Bacterial meningitis sometimes causes a type of blood poisoning called septicaemia, which happens if bacteria or their toxins enter the bloodstream and the rest of the body. Septicaemia is a very serious condition that can be fatal.

Symptoms

It can be very difficult to recognise meningitis, because at first the symptoms can resemble those of flu. However, you should seek urgent medical advice if you suspect meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis usually develops over a few hours. Viral meningitis can occur suddenly or develop gradually over a number of days.


Meningitis symptoms

The symptoms of viral and bacterial meningitis are similar, although the viral form of the disease is generally far less severe. They can appear in any order, and may include some, but not necessarily all, of the following:

  • fever
  • vomiting
  • severe headache
  • stiff and painful neck
  • confusion
  • fits (seizures)

Less common symptoms include:

  • drowsiness, muscle aches, weakness or tingling throughout the body
  • sensitivity to light and sore eyes
  • blotchy skin
  • dizziness
  • mood changes

Septicaemia symptoms

Septicaemia can occur with or without meningitis. The symptoms include:

  • fever
  • drowsiness
  • confusion
  • fast breathing
  • shivering, or having cold hands and feet
  • aching limbs or joints
  • rash

The rash caused by septicaemia looks like tiny bright red spots, which may join together to give the appearance of fresh bruises. If the spots don't disappear when a glass is pressed against the skin you should seek medical help immediately. This is known as the "tumbler test".

Complications

Recovery times vary from person to person, but it usually takes two to three weeks.

However, bacterial meningitis, and septicaemia, can have serious complications - sometimes it can even be fatal. These days this is rare - people are more aware of the symptoms, and there are more effective treatments available.

Although most people have no after effects from meningitis, severe cases can cause lasting complications, including:

  • learning difficulties, memory loss, coordination problems or paralysis of parts of the body - often these are temporary
  • loss of sight or vision problems
  • deafness or hearing problems
  • skin scarring from septicaemia
  • liver or kidney damage

Causes

Bacterial meningitis

Over 50 different types of bacteria can cause meningitis.

In the UK, the most common form of meningitis is meningococcal meningitis, which is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. This occurs in several different strains, but most cases in the UK are caused by strain B. Strain C used to be common, but vaccination now prevents most cases.

As well as infecting the meninges, meningococcal bacteria can also cause septicaemia. This may also be called meningococcal septicaemia.

The second most common form of meningitis in the UK is pneumoccocal meningitis, which is caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae. It can also result in septicaemia. These bacteria usually cause less serious illnesses than meningitis, such as ear infections and sore throats.

Viral meningitis

Viral meningitis doesn't usually cause septicaemia. Most cases of viral meningitis are relatively mild, and it is only rarely fatal. It's more common in the summer.

The most common cause of viral meningitis are enteroviruses, which normally live in the lining of the bowels (intestines). Usually, however, you only get a mild cold or flu-like illness when you are infected by these viruses.

Many other types of virus, such as herpes or measles, can also cause viral meningitis. The mumps virus used to be the most common cause of meningitis, but the MMR vaccine means this is now very rare in the UK.

Diagnosis

If your doctor thinks that you have meningitis, he or she will refer you to hospital immediately. There, a test called a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) may be carried out. This involves inserting a needle between two bones of the lower spine to take a sample of the spinal fluid for analysis.

A computerised tomography (CT) scan, which uses X-rays to make a three-dimensional image of part of the body may be carried out to check for swelling or damage to the brain tissue. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, which uses magnets and radiowaves to create images, may be performed instead.

Other tests may include a blood test, to see if the infection has reached the blood (septicaemia), throat and nose swabs, a chest X-ray, and a faeces sample may be sent to a laboratory to be checked for viruses.

Treatment

How you are treated depends on the type of infection causing the meningitis and/or septicaemia.

Bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis or septicaemia requires urgent hospitalisation. Treatments include antibiotics, usually given with a "drip" directly into a vein (intravenously), oxygen to help with breathing difficulties and intravenous fluids to combat dehydration and shock.

Viral meningitis

If you have viral meningitis, rest and take over-the-counter painkillers. Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice. The symptoms usually clear up within two weeks. Supportive care in hospital may be required for a severe infection, but there is no specific treatment for the virus infection.

Prevention

If you come into contact with someone with meningococcal meningitis or septicaemia, you should seek medical advice - you may need to take a preventive course of antibiotics. Other types of meningitis tend to be less infectious.

Other steps to prevent the spread of meningitis include avoiding contact with people known to have possible meningitis. Regular hand-washing also helps stop it spreading from person to person.

Further information

Meningitis Research Foundation

Sources

  • Understand meningitis and septicaemia. Meningitis Research Foundation. www.meningitis.org.uk, accessed 27 February 2007
  • Symptoms of meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia. The Meningitis Trust. www.meningitis-trust.org, accessed 28 February 2007
  • Longmore M, Wilkinson IB and Rajagopalan S. Oxford handbook of clinical medicine. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004: 808
  • Vaccine information. The Meningitis Trust. www.meningitis-trust.org, accessed 28 February 2007
  • The meningitis C campaign. Department of Health. www.dh.gov.uk, accessed 27 February 2007

Related topics

Meningitis and septicaemia in children