Meningitis B is a serious medical condition where the meninges (the wrappings that surround the spinal cord and brain) become inflamed. It is caused by a specific type of meningococcal bacteria and leads to a number of unpleasant symptoms, including fever, vomiting, a stiff neck, a rash across the body, confusion and seizures. If left untreated, meningitis B can be fatal.
Meningitis can be caused by a number of things, but usually the root cause is a viral infection. Bacterial infections are less common but they tend to be far more severe. Of the bacterial causes of meningitis, meningococcus is the most common.
Meningococcus is a type of bacteria, also referred to as Neisseria meningitidis. It is spread through close contact, such as kissing or coughing, but is not as contagious as the cold or flu. It is thought that about 10% of the population carry meningococcus but never become ill from it. When meningococcus does cause illness, however, it can be extremely serious. Meningococcal disease is one outcome of a meningococcus infection. This is where the patient becomes ill with meningitis and septicaemia, requiring urgent medical treatment.
Meningitis B, or MenB, is one of the most prevalent strains of meningococcus (two others are MenC and MenW). MenB has historically been a leading cause of meningitis and septicaemia in babies and young children in the UK. However, there is now a MenB vaccine system in place, immunising new babies against the disease.
Symptoms of Meningitis B
The symptoms of meningitis B are the same as the symptoms for other strains of meningococcal meningitis.
Initial symptoms are flu-like and include:
- Feeling unwell
These are followed with:
- Limb or joint pain
- Cold hands and feet
- Pale or mottled skin
- Shortness of breath
- A rash all over the body
- Stiff neck
- Aversion to bright lights
- Excessive sleepiness
The classic telltale symptom of meningococcal meningitis is the rash. This is caused by septicaemia (blood poisoning) which is caused by the meningococcus bacteria. The rash is caused by the blood vessels leaking blood, and will get worse over time. At first it will appear as small red pinpricks, which will develop into larger darker blotches.
A good way to check whether a rash is related to meningitis is to press a clear glass against it. If the rash does not disappear, then this indicates septicaemia. In this case, urgent medical attention is required.
Remember, though, that a rash does not always accompany meningitis. If you are suffering from a combination of the symptoms listed above, and you think you may have meningitis, you should seek medical help.
Symptoms of Meningitis B in Babies
Meningitis B is most likely to affect babies and young children. Symptoms in babies include:
- A bulging soft spot on the head
- A stiff body
- A floppy body
- Refusal to feed
- A high-pitched cry or unusual grunting sounds
If you spot these symptoms (or any listed in the section above) in your baby you should take them to the hospital straight away.
Treatment for Meningitis B
Meningitis B is treated with antibiotics in a hospital. The exact nature of the treatment depends upon the severity of the condition. Often, the patient will require IV fluids, steroids, and oxygen. In extreme cases, where the septicaemia has caused tissue damage, amputation may be required.
The Meningitis B Vaccine
In the UK, a meningitis B vaccine is available for babies, as part of the standard immunisations they are given in their first year. There is currently no meningitis B vaccine available on the NHS for older children or adults, however some private clinics may be able to administer the vaccine for a fee.
Another bacterial meningitis vaccine is available, however. Teenagers and students attending university for the first time are offered the Meningitis ACWY vaccine, which offers protection against four strains of meningococcal bacteria: A, C, W and Y. This same vaccine is also available to travellers.
The Meningitis ACWY Vaccine
You can receive the Meningitis ACWY vaccine privately if you are travelling to certain parts of the world. If you going to Saudi Arabia to take part in the Hajj or Umrah, it is compulsory for you to receive the ACWY vaccine before you go. You may also need it if you are visiting certain African countries where meningococcal meningitis is prevalent.
To find out whether you need the Meningitis ACWY vaccine, you can use the LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor free travel vaccines assessment. Alternatively, if you know that you need the vaccine, you can order it online here, and book an appointment at your local LloydsPharmacy to receive the injection.