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.

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.

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.

Can meningitis and septicaemia be prevented?

Vaccines give excellent protection, but cannot yet prevent all forms, and different vaccines for different forms are available in different countries of the word.

Vaccine programmes in the UK and Ireland

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.

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.

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

We offer support to people affected.  In the UK call Freefone helpline on 080 8800 3344. In Ireland call free on 1800 41 33 44.

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.

What should I do if I am worried about someone who is ill?

Trust your instincts. Someone who has meningitis or septicaemia could become seriously ill very quickly. Get medical help immediately if you are worried about someone who is ill.

Page last updated 13.05.16