World Meningitis Day: Symptoms, treatment, and how it is spread

A student receives a meningitis vaccine (Phillipe Desmazes/AFP via Getty Images)
A student receives a meningitis vaccine (Phillipe Desmazes/AFP via Getty Images)

World Meningitis Day is observed annually on October 5, since being established in 2009 by a group of people affected by the disease.

The aim of World Meningitis Day is to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of the disease, to help prevent illness and death.

Although meningitis is largely preventable through the use of vaccines, progress to defeat it lags behind other infectious diseases, according to the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations (CoMo).

CoMo also says that, in the past year, countries around the world have committed to the World Health Organisation’s Global Road Map to Defeat Meningitis by 2030. This could save more than 200,000 lives annually and significantly reduce disabilities caused by meningitis.

So on World Meningitis Day, find out what the signs and symptoms of this infectious disease are.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an infectious disease that affects the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord (meninges).

Meningitis is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection that can be spread through coughing, sneezing, or kissing.

It often affects babies, young children, teenagers, and young adults, although anyone can be affected.

Meningitis can be serious if not treated properly and can lead to life-threatening blood poisoning (septicaemia) and can result in permanent damage to the brain or nerves.

Vaccinations offer some protection against certain causes of meningitis and, in the UK, these are often routinely given to babies, children, and teenagers.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

The symptoms of meningitis develop suddenly. They do not appear in any particular order and someone may not experience all of them. They include the following:

  • a high temperature (fever)

  • being sick

  • a headache

  • a rash that does not fade when a glass is rolled over it

  • a stiff neck

  • a dislike of bright lights

  • drowsiness or unresponsiveness

  • seizures (fits)

How is meningitis treated?

People diagnosed with meningitis will be tested to see if it was caused by a viral or bacterial infection.

Bacterial meningitis is usually treated in the hospital for at least a week, with treatments including antibiotics and fluids directly into a vein and oxygen via a face mask.

Viral meningitis typically gets better on its own within seven to 10 days and can often be treated at home, by resting and taking painkillers.

What are the complications of meningitis?

Suffering from meningitis can cause the following complications, according to the NHS:

  • hearing loss or vision loss, which may be partial or total

  • problems with memory and concentration

  • recurrent seizures (epilepsy)

  • co-ordination, movement, and balance problems

  • loss of limbs, as amputation of affected limbs is sometimes necessary

It is estimated that up to 10 per cent of bacterial meningitis cases are fatal.