On day 2 of meningitis awareness week, we ask what is meningitis and highlight the signs and symptoms to help ensure that those affected seek medical advice at the earliest opportunity.

What is Meningitis?

Meningitis is swelling or inflammation of the protective lining around the brain and spinal cord (called the meninges). It is usually caused by viral or bacterial infection.

Meningitis can affect anyone at any age at any time, but babies and young children are particularly at risk.

Viral meningitis is rarely life-threatening and patients will usually recover without long term effects.

By contrast bacterial meningitis including meningococcal disease has the potential to be life threatening. Bacterial meningitis can lead to septicaemia (blood poisoning), hearing loss, brain damage, vision loss, epilepsy, amputations and death. It has been estimated that 1 in every 10 cases of bacterial meningitis is fatal.

Early diagnosis and treatment of meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia is crucial. Any delay can have a life changing impact on the outcome for patients and their families.

What are the symptoms?

Meningitis is difficult to diagnose as it can develop on suddenly and the symptoms are vague and non-specific. As a result it can be overlooked or mistaken for less serious conditions.

Knowing the signs and symptoms can help save lives.

Symptoms of meningitis may include:

- a high temperature or fever (e.g. 38C or above)

- sickness or vomiting 

- a headache

- a blotchy rash that doesn't fade/blanch when pressed 

- a stiff neck

- a dislike of bright lights (photosensitivity)

- drowsiness or unresponsiveness

- seizures or fits 

It is important to understand that not all of these symptoms may appear and that if they do it could be on any order. The absence of the typical blanching rash (one which fades when a glass is rolled over it) does not mean it is not meningitis.

Early symptoms can include fever, headache, vomiting, muscle pain and fever with cold hands and feet.

If in doubt seek medical attention urgently.

Diagnosis and treatment

Medical tests to diagnose meningitis include:

- physical examination to identify evidence of temperature, rash and any other signs of meningitis;

- blood tests for bacteria or viral infections;

- a lumbar puncture – to check the spinal fluid for bacteria or viruses

- a CT scan to check for any problems with the brain, including swelling or inflammation of the meninges.

Due the speed at which it can become life threatening, treatment for meningitis is often started before the diagnosis is confirmed.

Treatment may include:

- IV antibiotics to treat any bacterial infection

- IV fluids to prevent dehydration

- oxygen to assist with breathing and reduce stress on the body

- steroids to help reduce any swelling and inflammation around the brain.

When detected early, meningitis can often be treated successfully. However, once septicaemia develops or a patients vital organs are affected, their condition can deteriorate very quickly.

Meningitis claims

Examples of substandard treatment of meningitis or meningococcal septicaemia that may lead to a clinical negligence claim includes misdiagnosis, failure to recognise the symptoms of meningitis,failure to give appropriate safety-meeting device, and delays in the diagnosis and treatment.

If you or a member of your family have suffered an injury or lost a loved one as a result of meningitis or septicaemia and you are concerned with the standard of treatment received, then our specialist medical negligence solicitors may be able to help.

Please contact Catherine Bell, Senior Associate, on catherine.bell@freeths.co.uk or 01865 781 140 or speak to another member of our national team:-

Carolyn Lowe, Partner (Oxford/Milton Keynes) on 0186 578 1019 or carolyn.lowe@freeths.co.uk

Jane Williams, Partner (Nottingham/Leicester) on 0845 272 5724 or jane.williams@freeths.co.uk

Karen Reynolds, Partner (Derby/Stoke) on 0845 272 5677 or karen.reynolds@freeths.co.uk

For further information please also visit our website at: http://www.freeths.co.uk/legal-services/individuals/clinical-negligence

Freeths Oxford are proud to be Meningitis Research Foundation’s exclusive legal partner in the south east and to support the campaign to raise awareness and improve advice to patients. See www.meningitis.org