It’s every parent’s nightmare – trying to work out if your little one is a bit off colour, over tired or desperately ill. Meningitis is a devastating disease which typically causes confusion because it’s hard to identify – especially in the early stages. Meningitis is the biggest killer of children aged under five in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, with babies especially vulnerable because of their weak immune systems. But many people mistakenly think their children are protected against all types of the disease and this can lead to parents missing the symptoms or delay seeking medical help.
Meningitis is caused by the inflammation of the meninges, the lining around the brain and spinal cord. One of the symptoms people talk about is a rash, but this inflammatory response is more common with septicemia and you should never wait for it to appear.
Signs of meningitis
- Fever and/or vomiting
- Severe headache
- Very sleepy/vacant/difficult to wake
- Stiff neck
- Dislike of bright lights
In toddlers and babies there are additional tell-tale signs like refusing to eat, a high pitched or moaning cry, a tense or bulging soft spot on the head - the fontanelle - not wanting to be held or touched, a stiff body with jerky movements, or floppy and unable to stand up.
There can be a number of causes of meningitis, but the two most common are viruses and bacteria. Viral meningitis is rarely life-threatening but bacterial meningitis is and can kill fast.
At any one time around ten per cent of the population carry these bacteria harmlessly in the back of their nose and throat. If diagnosed early and treated quickly, most people who contract the diseases will make a good and full recovery. But in the early stages they can be mistaken for other illnesses such as flu.
Time is of the essence and you know your child best, so if you think they, or anyone else close to you, is seriously ill with meningitis, trust your instincts and get medical help immediately from a GP or the nearest hospital A & E.