Outbreaks of meningitis almost always make the headlines. But what is it and what are the symptoms?

A boy hugging his knees on the sofa looking ill

Symptoms of meningitis include a fever, headaches and a distinctive rash

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is a disease that’s often misunderstood, but should be treated with caution. It’s an infection of the membranes covering the spinal cord and the brain and, in some cases, can be fatal.

I’ve got a rash – could it be meningitis?

One of the main symptoms of meningitis a red or purple rash. Starting with one or two spots, the rash can spread to all parts of the body often turning into bruise-like blotches. The rash won’t fade under pressure. Test this by pressing a clear glass firmly on one of the blotches. If it doesn’t fade this could be a sign of meningitis and you should seek medical help immediately. However this can be harder to see on dark skin so check for spots on paler areas such as the palms of the hands or the roof of the mouth.

The symptoms of meningitis

Meningitis is not always easy to recognise and symptoms can appear in any order. Some may not appear at all, so it’s important to ask your doctor (GP) for advice if you have any worries.

Early warning symptoms to look out for include:

  • Leg pains
  • Cold hands or feet – even if the person has a high temperature
  • Pale or blue colour of the skin and around the lips

Other symptoms can be:

  • Stiff neck
  • Headache – which can become a migraine
  • Fever and shivering – but often with cold hands and feet
  • Breathing problems
  • Aches and pains in muscles and joints
  • Vomiting
  • Dislike of bright lights
  • Drowsiness and confusion

These symptoms can develop quickly or slowly, and can occur in any order or not at all. These symptoms could also be signs of flu, including swine flu. If the symptoms become worse or progress quickly then it could be meningitis.

What are the types of meningitis?

If you suspect you have meningitis it’s important to know if it’s the viral or bacterial variety as the seriousness of each can vary.

Viral Meningitis: is more common, relatively mild and usually clears up within a week or two. A variety of viruses can travel to the membranes and cause inflammation including mumps, herpes, chickenpox and flu. But don’t worry – most people make a full recovery.

Bacterial Meningitis: is less common, but much more serious. Around four in 100,000 people will suffer from this disease every year. Up to one in four people are carriers, but many people have a natural immunity. Children under five and teenagers aged 15-17 are most at risk, so it’s important to keep an eye out for symptoms.

Meningitis W

Teenagers and new students are being encouraged to get the Men ACWY vaccine to protect themselves from an aggressive strain of meningitis W bacteria. The vaccine protects against the A, C, W and Y strains of the disease that can potentially cause disability or death. The number of cases of meningitis W has recently increased dramatically and young people are most at risk. If you’ve haven’t got the Men ACWY vaccine yet speak to your GP.

How to prevent meningitis

The bacteria causing bacterial meningitis are spread by close contact with the dischargers from the nose or throat of a carrier. However, as some people are simply immune to the illness, it’s pretty hard to tell who to avoid. But being able to recognise the symptoms can help prevent any serious damage. Once a person is diagnosed with bacterial meningitis doctors will vaccinate people who have been in close contact with them. This should include housemates, boyfriends and girlfriends.

Next Steps

  • You can visit NHS Choices for more information. You can get quick advice when it's not an emergency on 111.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Daisy Phillipson

Updated on 29-Sep-2015