Meningitis symptoms: signs of health condition, how to spot it, is there a vaccine UK, how contagious is it?

Students are being urged to get vaccinated before starting university to protect against a number of life-threatening illnesses

Meningitis is a serious infection of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.

Although it can affect anyone, it is most common in babies, young children, teenagers and young adults. With freshers week approaching in the UK many students are being urged by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) to check they are fully vaccinated against meningitis.

But what causes meningitis and what are the common signs and symptoms?

Here is everything you need to know.

Students are being advised to check they are fully vaccinated against meningitis (Getty Images)Students are being advised to check they are fully vaccinated against meningitis (Getty Images)
Students are being advised to check they are fully vaccinated against meningitis (Getty Images)

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, known as meninges.

Meningitis can cause life-threatening blood poisoning, known as septicaemia, and result in permanent damage to the brain or nerves.

What causes meningitis?

Meningitis is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Bacterial meningitis is rarer than viral meningitis but it is also more serious.

Infections that cause meningitis can be spread through:

- Sneezing

- Coughing

- Kissing

- Sharing utensils, cutlery and toothbrushes.

The NHS explains that “meningitis is usually caught from people who carry these viruses or bacteria in their nose or throat but are not ill themselves.

“It can also be caught from someone with meningitis, but this is less common.”

Viral meningitis will usually get better on its own and rarely causes any long-term problems.

Most people with bacterial meningitis who are treated quickly also make a full recovery, but some may be left with serious long-term problems.

What are the common signs and symptoms of meningitis?

Symptoms of meningitis develop suddenly and can include:

- A high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above

- Being sick

- A headache

- A rash that does not fade when a glass is rolled over it (but this will not always develop)

- A stiff neck

- A dislike of bright lights

- Drowsiness or unresponsiveness

- Fits (seizures).

The NHS notes that these symptoms can appear in any order and that you do not always get all of the symptoms.

In the early stages, there may not be a rash or the rash might fade on pressure.

In babies, the signs of the dangerous condition differ.

They may:

- Refuse feeds

- Be irritable

- Have a high-pitched cry

- Have a stiff body or be floppy or unresponsive

- Have a bulding soft spot on the top of their head.

How can meningitis be treated?

According to the NHS, you should get medical advice as soon as possible if you're concerned that you or your child could have meningitis. Students in particular can be very susceptible to meningitis if they have not been fully vaccinated and doctors around the country are urging students not to mistake symptoms for a hangover. Claire Wright from the Meningitis Search Foundation said: “Meningitis can kill healthy people within hours and is difficult to distinguish from a bad hangover or more common milder illnesses in the early stages.”

Students are able to check with their GP practise to make sure they are up to date with their vaccines against meningitis and The UKHSA states that students should aim to have any vaccines they have missed at least two weeks before travelling to university.

Call 999 for an ambulance or go to your nearest A&E department immediately if you think you or your child might be seriously ill.

There are various vaccinations which offer some protection against certain causes of meningitis.

These include:

- Meningitis B vaccine – offered to babies aged 8 weeks, followed by a second dose at 16 weeks and a booster at 1 year

- 6-in-1 vaccine – offered to babies at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age

- Pneumococcal vaccine – offered to babies at 8 weeks, 16 weeks and 1 year old

- Hib/MenC vaccine – offered to babies at 1 year of age

- MMR vaccine – offered to babies at 1 year and a second dose at 3 years and 4 months

- Meningitis ACWY vaccine – offered to teenagers, sixth formers and "fresher" students going to university for the first time.