Meningitis is a medical condition that most people are familiar with. It is defined as the swelling or inflammation of the meninges, which are the protective wrappings covering the brain and the spinal cord.
The inflammation of the meninges causes a variety of symptoms, including fever, headache, stiff neck, aversion to bright lights, confusion, and seizures. Another classic symptom of meningitis is a rash all over the body that does not disappear when you press a glass against it. This is a sign of septicaemia, which often accompanies meningitis.
One of the most important things to recognise about meningitis is that can be caused by many different things. Usually it is caused by a viral infection, however it can also be caused by a bacterial infection, which is far more dangerous.
Causes of Meningitis
Viral Meningitis Causes
There are many types of virus that can cause meningitis. The most common is a group known as enteroviruses. Enteroviruses are very common, and normally completely harmless. They are most prevalent in young children, and tend to cause a mild stomach upset. It’s not always possible to avoid this kind of infection, but washing your hands regularly with soap and warm water is advised, particularly if you spend a lot of time with young children.
Another cause of viral meningitis is herpes. There are several different types of herpes virus, the most well-known and common being herpes simplex (HSV), which causes cold sores and genital herpes. Other strains of herpes can also cause meningitis, but HSV is the most common.
Historically, mumps was the leading cause of viral meningitis in the UK. Mumps is a virus that causes a painful swelling of the facial glands and leads to headache, joint pain, nausea, fever and tiredness. Since the introduction of the MMR vaccine, mumps-related meningitis cases have significantly reduced.
If you are travelling abroad, be aware that certain flaviviruses such as the West Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis can cause meningitis. These diseases are spread by mosquitoes and are not a cause for concern in the UK, but are prevalent in many countries places around the world, including North America, Africa, the Middle East, India, South East Asia and even southern Europe. There is a vaccine for Japanese encephalitis, but not for West Nile Virus. If you are travelling and are concerned about either of these diseases, talk to a doctor or travel specialist about the precautions you can take.
HIV can also cause meningitis, although this is relatively rare. If you are suffering from viral meningitis and your doctors are unsure of the cause, they may want to carry out an HIV test. This is because meningitis can be an early symptom of HIV.
Bacterial Meningitis Causes
As with viral meningitis, there are several different types of bacterial meningitis. The most common cause is meningococcus, a type of bacteria that causes meningococcal disease (meningitis and septicaemia). There are several different strains of meningococcus, the most prevalent and dangerous being MenB, MenC and MenW. One of the key dangers of contracting meningococcal meningitis is that it can lead to life-threatening septicaemia if not treated quickly enough. It is the septicaemia that causes the distinctive all-over body rash that meningitis is associated with.
The second biggest cause of bacterial meningitis in the UK is pneumococcal bacteria. Meningitis caused by pneumococcal bacteria leads to the same symptoms as meningococcus (fever, headache, stiff neck, sleepiness, confusion) but is not usually accompanied by a rash. This is because pneumococcus does not usually cause septicaemia, as meningococcus does.
Other bacterial strains that can cause bacterial meningitis include Haemophilus influenzae type b (also known as Hib), streptococcus, tuberculosis, E. coli, salmonella and listeria. With the exception of Hib, these strains of bacteria very rarely lead to meningitis. However, they can cause other serious medical conditions.
Viral and bacterial meningitis
The most significant difference between viral and bacterial meningitis is that viral meningitis is not usually as serious. Secondly, because antibiotics can only be used to treat bacterial infection, the standard treatment for viral meningitis is pain and nausea management. People suffering from viral meningitis will usually have to “wait” the disease out at home over a period of a few days, whilst taking painkillers and anti-sickness medication. In severe cases, viral meningitis may be treated in a hospital, however this is rare.
Because bacterial meningitis is far more serious, it must be treated in a hospital. Antibiotics will be given to fight the bacterial infection. Other treatments include fluids, oxygen and steroids. In serious cases, surgery may be required to remove tissue damaged by septicaemia.
Vaccinating Against Meningitis
There are several meningitis vaccines available on the NHS, most of which are given to babies, young children and young adults. Most of these vaccines offer protection against the more serious kinds of meningococcal meningitis, such as MenB and MenC.
If you are travelling to certain places, you will require the Meningitis ACWY vaccine (unless you have previously been vaccinated). Participants in the Hajj and Umrah must receive the vaccine, according to Saudi Arabian law. It is also strongly advised that you receive the vaccine if you are travelling to certain African countries in the “meningitis belt”.