What are meningitis and septicaemia?

Meningitis means inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. Septicaemia is blood poisoning. They can be caused by lots of different germs, mainly bacteria or viruses.

Viral meningitis is painful, but it is not usually dangerous. Bacterial meningitis and septicaemia are very dangerous and can come on very quickly. Septicaemia often happens without meningitis, and kills more people.

Am I at Risk?

The risk of getting meningitis and septicaemia is very low, even if you have been in contact with someone who has it. However, it is vital to know the symptoms and to get medical help immediately if you are worried.

How do people get meningococcal disease?

People get the disease when the meningococcal bacteria overcome the body's immune defences and pass into the blood stream, causing meningitis or septicaemia or both.

The bacteria 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 (eg kissing), and this helps us build up our immunity. Usually you have to be in very close, regular or prolonged contact with someone for the bacteria to pass between you. Even when this happens, it is unlikely you will become ill because fortunately most of us have natural resistance.

The bacteria cannot live long in the air, so they do not survive for more than a few moments outside the human body. They are not carried on everyday objects like clothes, toys, crockery, furniture or bedding.

Why do people get meningitis or septicaemia?

Scientists do not yet fully understand why a few people get meningitis or septicaemia from germs that are harmless to most of us.

Babies and young children have a higher risk of getting the disease than older children and adults. This is partly because their immune systems are not fully developed.

Meningitis Research Foundation funds vital scientific research to answer questions like this, and to find the way to stop meningitis and septicaemia for good.

How common are meningitis and septicaemia?

Around 2,000 cases of meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia are reported in the UK and Republic of Ireland every year. In other words, about three people in every 100,000 will get the disease each year in the UK, and six in every 100,000 in the Republic of Ireland.

Can some forms of meningitis and septicaemia be prevented?

Vaccines give excellent protection, but cannot prevent all kinds.

The MenC vaccine, which prevents one type of meningococcal disease, is in the routine immunisation programme. It is also available to older children and young people who have not already had it. The Hib vaccine prevents meningitis and septicaemia caused by a different bug and is also one of the routine injections for babies.

There are also vaccines to prevent pneumococcal meningitis and septicaemia - one for babies and young children, and the other for older children and adults. Currently pneumococcal vaccination is offered to people with health conditions which increase their risk from infection, and to elderly people. However, from September 4 2006 a pneumococcal vaccination will be introduced into the routine childhood immunisation programme and will be offered to all children at 2, 4 and 13 months of age.

Another meningococcal vaccine protects against bacteria not often seen in the UK and Republic of Ireland. It is recommended for people travelling to certain parts of the world (eg those making the Hajj pilgrimage).

There is no vaccine against Group B meningococcal disease for the UK and Republic of Ireland, even though it is the most common cause of the disease here. However, scientists are working hard to develop one.

For more information about vaccines, call the charity's helpline.

Can meningitis and septicaemia be treated?

Yes. Most people recover, but they need urgent treatment in hospital.

Some people who recover are left with disabilities or other after-effects.

The charity funds research into treatments and after-effects, to help improve the quality of life for people affected.

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 other diseases. That's why the Foundation funds research to find ways to improve diagnosis. Meanwhile it is vital to know the symptoms and to get medical help immediately if you are worried that someone who is ill 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 will decide what needs to be done to protect the community. This doctor will make sure that anyone who is at increased risk of meningococcal disease is contacted and offered special, very strong antibiotics (usually rifampicin or ciprofloxacin) to help stop the disease from spreading, and will also advise schools or employers. This sometimes also happens with cases of Hib meningitis, but is not necessary for other causes of meningitis or septicaemia.

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

Antibiotics are usually only given to people living in the same household as the patient, and to their boy/girlfriend. These antibiotics kill the bacteria that cause the disease. As it takes time for these drugs to take effect, even if you are given this medicine, it is still important to watch out for the symptoms.

Where there have been two or more cases of meningococcal meningitis or septicaemia in a nursery, school or workplace, the public health doctor may decide that antibiotics should be given to a wider group, such as a whole class or year group.

Is there an incubation period?

Yes. When people get the disease, symptoms normally appear within two to seven days of being exposed to the bacteria.

What about vaccines?


If someone gets Group C meningococcal disease, MenC vaccine will be offered to close contacts and others considered to be at increased risk who have not already been immunised, along with the antibiotics. It is important to remember that the incubation period for the disease is usually less than the time it takes for the vaccine to take effect, so it is still important 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 friend's daughter has just had the disease. Where can my friend get support?

Meningitis Research Foundation offers support to people affected. Please give your friend our helpline number.

My son's friend goes to a school where there has been a case of meningitis. Should I stop my son playing with him? Is it safe for my son's friend to play with the boy who has recovered from meningitis?

There is no need to avoid people who have been in contact with a case. As one in ten people carry the bacteria, your child comes into contact with them every day. Also, it is perfectly safe for your son's friend to play with the boy who had meningitis. The treatment he had in hospital will have killed the bacteria that caused the disease, 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.

Tumbler Test

If someone is ill and gets a rash, do the tumbler test.

Remember, a very ill person needs medical help even if there is no rash, or a rash that fades.

Questions and answers