Meningitis (the inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord) and septicaemia (the blood poisoning form of the disease), are very serious diseases that can affect anyone of any age.
Bacteria are one of the most common, severe causes of these illnesses and can kill within hours. Cases can, and do, occur at any time of year. But in the UK and Ireland, occurrences of meningitis and septicaemia caused by two major bacterial causes of the disease, meningococcal and pneumococcal bacteria, typically rise during the winter months.
So why do meningitis and septicaemia cases rise during the winter in the UK and Ireland?
Time spent in close contact increases
Once the clocks change and the temperature drops people begin spending longer periods indoors in close proximity. This allows the bacteria to spread more rapidly, particularly through coughing, sneezing, and kissing.
Common winter viruses, such as flu, make us more susceptible to illness including meningitis.
Most of us will be exposed to the bacteria which can cause meningitis at some point in our lives without ever becoming ill. Higher rates of bacterial meningitis have been observed following increased rates of influenza. The exact reason for this is unknown, but there are several possibilities. Being unwell with flu may make it easier for the bacteria which cause meningitis, to occupy the nose and throat, or if the lining protecting these areas becomes damaged, to invade the blood stream. It is also possible that the flu weakens our immune systems, leaving us more susceptible to other illnesses, playing a part in increasing our risk of getting meningitis.
How can you prevent meningitis?
Ensure those that matter to you are vaccinated
The best way to prevent meningitis is through vaccination. Vaccines are available in the UK and Ireland to protect against some of the major causes of meningitis and septicaemia, including meningococcal and pneumococcal vaccines.
Be aware of the symptoms
There are not yet vaccines available to protect against every type of bacterial meningitis, and protection is not lifelong. So, it is important to be able to spot the signs and symptoms and remain vigilant.
The early symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia can be the same as many other common illnesses, like cold, flu and even COVID, so it is important to watch out for any signs of deterioration to a person’s health. Always trust your instincts and get medical help if you are still concerned, no matter how long it has been since you or your child last saw a medical professional.
Resources for those most at risk of meningitis
It is important to remember, meningitis is more than just a rash – which doesn’t always appear. Symptoms can develop in any order and not everyone gets all of them.
If in doubt, get professional medical advice and say you suspect meningitis.
It could save someone’s life.