Meningitis is an infection of the meninges; which are protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Infection can cause the meninges to become inflamed and swollen, which can then damage nerves and the brain.
This condition can cause symptoms such as a severe headache, vomiting, high fever, stiff neck and sensitivity to light. Many of those affected also develop a distinctive skin rash.
Meningitis can be caused by a virus, such as the herpes simplex or bacteria, such as Streptococcus Pneumoniae, which usually lives harmlessly in the mouth and throat.
Bacterial meningitis is extremely serious and should be treated as a medical emergency as if left untreated it can cause severe damage to the brain and infect the blood (septicaemia), leading to shock and death.
The symptoms of bacterial meningitis usually begin abruptly and the patient can deteriorate rapidly. Symptoms include:
- severe headache
- seizures or fits
- intolerance of bright light (photophobia)
- stiff neck
- blotchy red skin rash which will not fade or change colour when a glass is placed against it.
Treatment requires a transfer to an intensive care unit so that urgent investigations can be carried out whilst the body's functions are supported and antibiotics to treat infection and steroids to reduce inflammation are urgently administered.
Diagnostic tests for meningitis include:
- blood test - to check for bacteria or viruses,
- CT Scan - in order to assess the level of pressure on the brain
- lumbar puncture - taking a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from the base of the spine and checking it for the presence of bacteria or viruses.
If it is proven that a bacteria has entered the blood, this can introduce toxins that kill healthy tissue. If this damage is severe, tissue will die and become gangrenous. Gangrenous tissue will need to be surgically removed. In the most severe cases, it may be necessary to amputate a whole body part, such as a finger, toe, or limb.
Most people treated early enough, will make a partial recover within 10-14 days, although it may be several weeks or months before they recover fully.
Possible brain related complications include:
- loss of hearing; this may be partial or total
- problems with memory and concentration
- problems with co-ordination and balance
- learning difficulties - this could be temporary or permanent
- epilepsy (see the 'related articles' section for more information on epilepsy)
- cerebral palsy (see the 'related articles' section for more information on cerebral palsy)
- speech problems
- loss of vision; this may be partial or total.