New Year’s Eve Warning - Meningitis Symptoms can be Mistaken for Effects of Alcohol or Drugs

New Year’s Eve Warning - Meningitis Symptoms can be Mistaken for Effects of Alcohol or Drugs

30 December 2016

  • The party season is peak season for meningitis and septicaemia
  • Symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia can be confused with the effects of drug or alcohol use
  • Teenagers and young adults are a high risk age group for the disease and a particularly deadly strain of meningococcal W meningitis is on the rise 
Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) is encouraging everyone to look out for family and friends this New Year’s Eve, as the symptoms of deadly meningitis and septicaemia can easily be mistaken for the effects of drug or alcohol use.

Symptoms can include fever, headache and sickness that quickly worsen. In the later stages, meningitis makes people confused, disorientated and delirious and this is sometimes mistaken for the effects of alcohol or drugs.

Winter is peak season for meningitis which can kill quickly without urgent action. Teenagers and young adults are more likely to carry the meningococcal bacteria in their nose and throat and can spread it to others during close contact in packed social spaces like pubs and clubs. Many of them will be unknowingly carrying the bacteria which can cause serious illness.

It is thought that the bacteria are able to invade the body more easily via the nose and throat during winter due to recent infection with flu virus. Scientists have also recently shown that adolescents are more likely to be carrying higher numbers of these bacteria in their throats in winter, meaning the party season is peak season for the disease.

With more of the bacteria around and spreading, everyone is at higher risk in the winter because they are more likely to be exposed to the germs. Babies, toddlers and young adults are most at risk, however these diseases can strike anyone of any age, at any time. On average there are three times as many cases of the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in January compared with September.

Kathleen Hawkins from London, now 27, was at university when she contracted meningococcal septicaemia aged 18. She said, “I was in my first term at university when one day I got ill but I put it down to fresher’s flu. Everybody had it. I woke up in the night and was delirious, shaking uncontrollably and violently sick. The next day I managed to get myself out of my room and into the hallway. All I remember was the lights were blinding me. I got myself into the communal kitchen where a few of my student friends were. By that point I was drifting in and out of consciousness. The next thing I remember was a paramedic asking me what drugs I’d taken.

“After we had waited at the hospital for almost an hour, one of the doctors spotted a rash on my arm and I was rushed to intensive care. Multiple organ failure followed and I was placed on life support. I was diagnosed with meningococcal septicaemia. My legs were black because of the effects of septicaemia and I had to have both of my legs amputated below the knee. It didn’t look like my body anymore.

“I remember looking out the hospital window on New Year’s Eve. I could still hardly move and could hear the fireworks but not see them. I thought about all the happiness and positivity that was being celebrated at that moment and which felt a long way from where I was. I would encourage everyone to look out for their friends or family if they are unwell. Especially over the party season.”

In the last couple of years there has been a rise in cases of a particularly deadly type among teenagers and young adults - the MenW ST-11 strain. The fatality rate has been 12% compared to around 5% for other strains of meningitis.

Linda Glennie, Head of Research at MRF said, “The overall risk of contracting meningitis is low, but Christmas and the start of the New Year is peak season for the disease. Rapid diagnosis and treatment of meningitis and septicaemia give the best chance of survival. However it can be very difficult for health professionals to diagnose because in the early stages the symptoms resemble many other less serious illnesses. Early meningitis symptoms include fever, headache, sickness and feeling unwell and sometimes people mistake these for a hangover after a night out.

“There have also been several reported cases of delayed diagnosis when confusion and unusual behaviour due to advancing meningitis has been mistaken for alcohol or drug intoxication in young people. MenW doesn’t always present in the normal way and sometimes vomiting and diarrhoea are the only symptoms and frequently there is no rash.

“That’s why prevention is so vital. We’re encouraging all eligible young people to get the MenACWY vaccine which is still available. It’s not too late.

“During the party season it’s more important than ever to be vigilant. The key thing to look for is a rapid worsening of symptoms. If you or a friend or relative is unwell and the symptoms are getting quickly worse, trust your instincts, act fast and get medical help.”

To find out more about the symptoms visit www.meningitis.org/symptoms or call the Freefone helpline on 080 8800 3344

Sam Williams
Media Relations Manager

Hi, I’m Sam and I’m MRF's PR Manager.

If you want to know more about this story call me on 0333 405 626251, out of office hours on 07875 498047 or email me

samanthaw@meningitis.org