Since our role is to diagnose and treat illnesses quickly to prevent the development of more serious conditions, as a private GP clinic, we don’t see too many patients sick with life-threatening illnesses. That said, our GPs are highly trained in recognising the red flag symptoms of serious illnesses, and will always bear these in mind while assessing patients.
Today we focus on meningitis – a condition for which urgent treatment is required. However, symptoms are sometimes difficult to differentiate from common viral infections. We explain more below…
What Is Meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the membranous layers that cover and protect the brain and spinal cord. The infection can spread in to the blood stream causing septicaemia; this is a very serious condition and requires urgent treatment.
Meningitis can affect anyone, but it most commonly occurs in young people, from babies to young adults.
Meningitis Signs and Symptoms
Initially, meningitis may feel like a flu-like illness. Other signs and symptoms include:
- Neck stiffness
- Light sensitivity (photophobia)
- Rash that does not fade when a glass is pressed against it
- Nausea and vomiting
- Drowiness or confusion
- Muscle and joint pain
Symptoms of Meningitis in Babies and Young Children
It may be slightly harder to recognise symptoms of meningitis in children, as they are unable to communicate some symptoms, such as a headache or neck stiffness. Therefore, it’s important to look out for more subtle signs, such as:
- Refusing to eat/ breast feed
- Becoming agitated
- Becoming floppy or unresponsive
- Becoming stiff
- Have a bulging soft spot (fontanelle) on their head
If you or your child develop any of these symptoms, or you suspect that you or your child may have meningitis, you should call 999 for an ambulance, go to your nearest A&E department or contact your GP for emergency advice.
It is important to seek help and receive treatment as soon as possible if you suspect meningitis, as infection can lead to serious complications.
What Causes Meningitis?
Meningitis can be caused by a virus or bacteria. The most common form is viral (which is not as severe as the bacterial form). The bacterial type can be fatal if left untreated.
Viruses that can cause meningitis include:
- Usually the culprit of an upset stomach
- The mumps virus
- Most people are vaccinated against this by the MMR vaccine
- Herpes simplex virus
- Usually causes cold sores or genital herpes
Bacteria causing meningitis include:
- Pneumococcal bacteria
- Neisseria meningitidis bacteria
- Haemophilus influenza B
Babies are routinely vaccinated against these bacteria.
How Do You Catch Meningitis?
You can become infected with meningitis if you are exposed to an infected person sneezing or coughing, by kissing them, or by sharing glasses or cutlery. The person spreading virus or bacteria causing meningitis may not be ill or have any symptoms themselves.
Young people (babies to young adults) are most commonly affected. The elderly, as well as people with weak immunity (HIV positive or on immunosuppressant medication) are also at increased risk.
You can become infected with meningitis if you are exposed to an infected person sneezing
Meningitis is mostly treated in hospital. The first step is confirming the meningitis diagnosis and finding out whether it is viral or bacterial. Since bacterial meningitis can cause such a serious infection, your doctor will usually start you on antibiotics immediately, just in case. Tests to confirm the diagnosis include:
- Taking your medical history and a physical examination
- Blood tests for bacteria or virus
- Lumbar puncture to sample the fluid around the spine to check for infection
- Computerised tomography (CT) scan to see if the brain has been affected by the infection
If a bacterial infection is confirmed, antibiotics will be started or continued if already given. You may be given fluids into a vein to avoid dehydration and oxygen through a face mask if you are having difficulty breathing. If there is any swelling around the brain, steroid medication may be recommended to reduce this.
If a viral infection is confirmed, you may be able to be treated at home, unless the infection is very severe. This type of meningitis will get better on its own and most will feel better after 7-10 days. With a viral infection, antibiotics are not prescribed. At home, it is recommended to rest and stay hydrated. Painkillers can be used if you are experiencing headaches or muscle and joint pain and anti-sickness medicine from your local pharmacy or GP, if you are feeling nauseous or vomiting.
If you have been in close contact with someone with bacterial meningitis for a long period of time, it may be recommended to take a precautionary dose of antibiotics, just in case.
Many vaccines exist to try and reduce the rate of meningitis. Babies are routinely vaccinated against bacteria which most commonly cause meningitis.
Babies are often vaccinated against bacteria which most commonly cause meningitis
What To Do If You Suspect Meningitis
If you think you are experiencing symptoms of meningitis, you should go straight to A&E for urgent treatment.
However, the symptoms of meningitis are often hard to differentiate from a common viral infection. In this case, if you are not acutely unwell enough for A&E, but are still displaying some symptoms similar to those described above, we recommend you book in for an urgent GP appointment at your local GP surgery or at London Doctors Clinic. From here, the GP will assess your symptoms, considering your medical history, and should they still suspect meningitis, they may then direct you to a hospital for further assessment. In most cases, we are usually able to provide reassurance and advice on symptom management.
If you’re only mildly sick, but concerned that your symptoms could be something more sinister, London Doctors Clinic is the the perfect first port-of-call for a short-notice, no-fuss medical assessment of your condition, for your peace of mind.
By Anna Kessler