Frequently asked questions

What are meningitis and septicaemia?

Meningitis means swelling of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. Septicaemia is blood poisoning caused by the same germs.

They can occur together or separately. Meningitis and septicaemia are caused by many types of germs, but meningococcal bacteria cause the most common serious kind. Meningococcal disease is very dangerous and can come on very quickly.

Am I at Risk?

The risk of getting the disease is very low. Although meningococcal disease is infectious and can cause outbreaks, 97 out of every 100 cases are isolated, with no link to any other cases.

The bacteria that cause the disease are very common: at any time about one in ten of us has them in our noses and throats without ever knowing they are there, and for most of us this is harmless. We pass the bacteria between each other by close contact (e.g. coughing, sneezing, kissing).

Usually we have to be in very close or regular contact with someone for the bacteria to pass between us. Even when this happens, most of us will not become ill because we have natural immunity.

The bacteria cannot live longer than a few moments outside the human body, so they are not carried on things like clothes and bedding, toys or dishes.

How do people get it?

People get the disease when the bacteria move from the nose and throat and invade the body.

Is there an incubation period?

Yes. Symptoms normally appear within about five days of picking up the bacteria.

Why do some people get meningitis or septicaemia?

We do not yet fully understand why some people get ill from germs that are harmless to most of us.

Babies and young children are at higher risk than older children and adults, partly because their immune systems are not fully developed.

How common are meningitis and septicaemia?

About three people in every 100,000 will get the disease each year in the UK, and four in every 100,000 in Ireland.

Can meningitis and septicaemia be prevented?

Vaccines give excellent protection, but cannot yet prevent all forms. For example there is no available vaccine against meningococcal B disease, the most common form of the disease in the UK & Ireland.

The meningitis vaccines in the routine immunisation programme are:
  • The MenC vaccine, against meningococcal C disease. This vaccine is also available to older children and young people who have not already had it
  • The Hib vaccine against meningitis and septicaemia caused by the Hib germ. It is given in an injection that also protects against some other childhood diseases
  • The pneumococcal vaccine against meningitis and septicaemia and other serious disease caused by the most common pneumococcal germs
  • The MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. This also protects against meningitis caused by mumps and measles
There are also meningitis vaccines for elderly people, for children and adults with ‘at-risk’ health conditions, and for travellers to certain parts of the world.

To find out more about meningitis vaccines, call the Foundation's helpline.

Can the disease be treated?

Yes. Most people recover, but they need urgent treatment in hospital, and some people are left with disabilities or other after effects.

We fund research into diagnosis, treatments and after effects, to help improve the quality of life for people affected.
We also fund research into prevention, to put an end to meningitis and septicaemia for good.

How would I know if I've got it?

In the early stages, it can be very difficult to tell meningitis and septicaemia apart from milder diseases. It is vital to know the symptoms and to get medical help immediately if you are worried that an ill person may have the disease.

Who decides what needs to be done for people who have been in contact with the disease?

All cases of meningitis and septicaemia are reported to the Public Health Doctor, who uses national guidelines to decide what needsto be done to protect the community, and will also advise schools, colleges or nurseries dealing with cases.

This doctor will make sure that anyone at especially increased risk of meningococcal disease is contacted and offered very strong antibiotics, usually ciprofloxacin but sometimes rifampicin (or certain other medicines). This is to kill the bacteria that cause the disease and so help stop it from spreading. As it takes time for them to take effect, even if you are given antibiotics it is still important to look out for the symptoms.

Public health action is sometimes also taken in cases of Hib meningitis, but it is not needed after a single case of any other kind of meningitis.

Someone I know has got meningitis. Should I have these antibiotics?

The antibiotics are usually only given to people living in the same household as the patient, and to their boy/girlfriend. Where there have been two or more cases of meningococcal disease within a short period of time in a nursery, school, college or certain other settings, the Public Health Doctor may decide that antibiotics
should be given to a wider range of contacts as well, usually to the particular class or school year affected.

This may also happen when there are two or more cases of Hib meningitis, or if there are two or more  pneumococcal cases in a nursery or nursing home.

What about vaccines?

If someone gets meningococcal C disease, the same people who got antibiotics will be offered MenC vaccine, if they have not already had it. Even if they have had the MenC vaccine in the past, close contacts may need another dose. If it’s a case of meningococcal A, W or Y disease, those who had antibiotics will get a Men A C W Y
vaccine.

As the incubation period for the disease is less than the time it takes for the vaccine to work, it is still vital to know the symptoms.

What precautions can I take against meningitis and septicaemia?

As vaccines can't protect against all forms of the disease, knowing  the symptoms is vital, because treatment at an early stage of illness gives the best chance of a good recovery.

My sister has the disease. Where can my family get support?

Meningitis Research Foundation offers support to people affected. Please call our Freefone helpline number.

My daughter's boyfriend works in a factory where there has been a case of meningitis. Should I stop her seeing him?

There is no need to avoid people who have been in contact with a case.

Remember one in ten people carry the bacteria, so we come into contact with them all the time.

Is it safe for my son to play with a boy who has had meningitis?

Yes. It is perfectly safe for your son to play with him.

The antibiotics he had in hospital have killed the bacteria, so he’s not infectious any more.

Melanie Kee
Meningococcal disease
Meningococcal disease at 5

It scares us to think how easily we could have lost her.

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