Many of us associate meningitis with a telltale rash – but would we be able to identify the other symptoms? Photos released by the parents of Mason Timmins, who passed away from the disease in 2013, have underlined how important it is that we know the typical signs of meningitis. Mason didn’t have the rash generally associated with meningitis – and yet he died from the disease in less than 24 hours.
In light of this, we’ve asked Dr Barra Otuama, GP at babylonhealth.com, to explain what we need to know in order to spot this potentially deadly disease:
What are the key things to look out for in adults?
‘The swelling from meningitis typically triggers symptoms such as headache, fever and a stiff neck. Additionally in adults, you should look out for sudden high fever; stiff neck; a severe headache – especially with nausea or vomiting; confusion or concentration difficulties; seizures; sleepiness; sensitivity to light; and sometimes, but not always, a rash,’ explains Dr Otuama. ‘Seek immediate medical care if you suspect that someone has meningitis. Early treatment of bacterial meningitis can prevent serious complications.’
What about children?
‘As well as the signs listed above for adults, in infants there may be a refusal to feed, irritability – especially on movement, a stiff body or the opposite – a totally floppy and lifeless body; and a tense or bulging soft spot on the head,’ Dr Otuama reveals. ‘And it is important to remember that in infants less than three months of age, fever is often absent.’
What about older children? ‘In children over the age of two, look out for: fever; severe, unrelenting headache; confusion; vomiting; and a stiff neck,’ says Dr Otuama. ‘Bacterial meningitis can be fatal without appropriate antibiotic treatment. It’s important to tell your doctor if you have been in contact with someone who has meningitis – medication can prevent the spread of the infection. It’s also important to talk to your doctor if a family member or someone you work with has meningitis. You may need to take medications to prevent getting the infection.’
What should you do if you suspect somebody has meningitis?
‘Someone with meningitis or septicaemia can get a lot worse very quickly. Keep checking them, and go to your doctor or the local hospital if you or your child:
Has symptoms of meningitis, such as severe and persistent headache, stiff neck, fever, rash, nausea, and vomiting.
Has symptoms of viral meningitis and does not get better with home treatment after 3 days.
Is being treated for viral meningitis and develops signs of complications, such as a fever that lasts longer than three full days and does not go down during home treatment.’
Should you wait for a purple rash to appear before seeking help?
‘If you are seriously worried about someone who is sick and deteriorating, don’t wait for a rash to appear – get medical help. But if they are already ill and get a new rash or spots, use the glass test.’
What is the ‘glass test’?
‘Press a clear glass firmly against the rash. If you can see the marks clearly through the glass, seek urgent medical help immediately.’ Dr Otuama continues: ‘Check the entire body. Look out for tiny red or brown pin-prick marks which can change into larger red or purple blotches and blood blisters. The darker the skin, the harder it is to see a septicaemia rash, so check lighter areas – such as the palms of hands and soles of feet, or look inside the eyelids and the roof of the mouth. Remember, a very ill person needs medical help even if there are only a few spots, a rash or no rash at all.’
Dr Barra Otuama, GP is based at babylonhealth.com.