Why do meningitis cases rise in winter?

December 2018

As winter hits, we get asked a lot about why the number of people getting meningitis increases over this time of year here in the UK and Ireland.

Bacterial meningitis and septicaemia (or sepsis) are very serious diseases that can affect anyone of any age. The spread of the two major bacterial causes - meningococcal and pneumococcal infections - is known to increase over the winter months, meaning that cases of bacterial meningitis and septicaemia increase too.

Why does this happen?

Over winter many of us will unfortunately catch a cold or even the flu. By suppressing our immune system, the flu may play a part in increasing our risk of getting meningitis. Research has also suggested that co-infection with wintertime respiratory viruses (such as the common cold) can also increase our risk, by enabling the bacteria to invade the body via the back of our nose and throat.

What’s more, as the temperature drops the bacteria are able to spread more rapidly as people spend longer periods indoors in close proximity, particularly through coughing, sneezing, and kissing. This risk becomes even more pronounced when considering that many of us are likely to be infected with wintertime viruses.

Winter is peak meningitis season in the UK and Ireland.

There may be other factors at play that we aren’t yet aware of, acting in combination with the above. We are currently funding research to investigate whether people with wintertime viruses might be more likely to carry more meningococcal bacteria in the back of the nose and throat, and whether this in turn makes people more likely to transmit the bacteria to others.

Interestingly, in the African Meningitis Belt bacterial meningitis cases are highest during their summer (which occurs during our winter months). This is thought to be caused by dry and dusty winds from the Sahara desert affecting the lining of the back of the nose and throat, making people more susceptible to getting meningitis.

How can you prevent meningitis?

The best way to prevent these diseases is through vaccination. Vaccines are available in the UK immunisation schedule protecting against some of the major causes of meningitis and septicaemia, including meningococcal and pneumococcal vaccines.

There has been a big push for young adults aged between 14 and 22 to get the free MenACWY vaccine following a rise in cases of meningococcal W meningitis and septicaemia across the UK since 2009. However uptake has not been very high in the upper end of this age group. First year university students up to the age of 25 are also eligible and are at increased risk because they live close together in halls of residence and mix with so many other young people. It’s easy for anyone to check their eligibility for this free vaccine at: www.meningitis.org/oneshot.

The MenACWY vaccine is available to protect teenagers and young adults.
 
However there are not yet vaccines available to protect against every type of bacterial meningitis, and protection is not lifelong. Therefore it is important to remain vigilant to the signs and symptoms. As the early symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia can be the same as many minor viral illnesses, it is important to keep an eye out for the deterioration of symptoms and seek further medical help if you are still concerned, no matter how long it has been since you or your child last saw a medical professional.

This winter, MRF has made a new safety netting resources hub available for parents to help them decide what course of action they should take if their child is unwell, and most importantly, when to get urgent medical help.
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About the author

Natacha Blake
Evidence and Policy Officer (Diagnosis and Treatment)
My role, which has been developed recently to enable our UK and international capacity, involves working with both my colleagues here at MRF and other professionals to provide evidence-based understanding and awareness into the issues associated with the diagnosis and treatment of meningitis and septicaemia, both in the UK and internationally.
Tel: 0333 405 6256

Other blogs of interest

MRF Evidence and Policy Manager (Prevention), Claire Wright, discusses the pros and cons of making vaccination compulsory in the fight against meningitis and septicaemia
MRF Information and Support Officer, Katherine Carter reports on our latest family day for those affected by meningitis and septicaemia
MRF investigates the impact of social media on meningitis survivors.

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