Page last updated at 10:16 GMT, Wednesday, 11 January 2006

Q&A: Meningitis warning signs

Doctors have identified ways of detecting meningitis much earlier, offering a potential way of saving more children's lives.

What are the signs parents and GPs should be looking out for?

Q: What is meningitis?

It is an inflammation of the brain lining - the meninges - which can cause serious disability or even death.

There are various forms of meningitis. One of the most common causes of meningitis is the meningococcal bacterium.

It can also cause septicaemia, a blood poisoning form of the disease.

There is also a viral form of meningitis, but this is less serious.

Q: What have parents traditionally been told to watch out for?

Meningitis rash
A rash is a classic sign of meningitis

The 'classic' signs of meningitis are:

  • A rash which does not change colour or disappear when a glass is placed against it,
  • Headache,
  • A stiff neck
  • Sensitivity to light

These signs tend to take between 13 and 22 hours to develop. But they often appear just a couple of hours before children become critically ill.

Q: What have the researchers done?

The University of Oxford team looked at the cases of 448 children with meningococcal disease, using questionnaires given to parents, and medical records. Just over 100 of the children had died.

The researchers wanted to see if there was any common pattern which could be used to detect illness earlier.

Q: What are the signs they say we should look for?

The research found there were signs which appeared much earlier than the traditional symptoms - within the first eight hours.

These were:

  • Severe leg pain - which is so bad the child cannot stand or walk
  • Cold hands or feet - when the child is running a fever
  • Pale skin, possibly blue around the lips

Q: What should parents do if their children have these symptoms?

Meningitis rash
A meningitis rash doesn't disappear when pressed

The researchers say there is no guarantee it is meningitis - but say there is no harm in checking.

And the Royal College of GPs accepts greater awareness of these early signs among doctors would help them spot cases.

However, there is concern that children who are not suffering from meningitis could overwhelm hospital emergency departments if they are sent there inappropriately.

Q: If my child does have meningitis, what is the treatment?

He or she will be given immediate treatment with antibiotics and appropriate hospital management.

People who have been in close contact with a person with meningococcal meningitis may also have to be treated.

Isn't there a vaccine against meningococcal meningitis?

There are a number. But there is no vaccine yet against the B strain meningococcal meningitis - one of the two most frequently seen strains in the UK.

There is, however, a vaccine against group C - the other most common strain - which is given as part of the UK immunisation programme.

Q: What is the long-term prognosis?

At least four in 100,000 British children will become ill with meningococcal disease.

Most people who get meningitis and septicaemia will make a full recovery.

However, experts estimate 15% of sufferers are left with serious disabilities and many more will suffer a range of short-term or less serious problems.

And around 10% of those infected will die.

video and audio news
See what the early signs of meningitis are

Early signs of meningitis found
11 Jan 06 |  Health
Meningitis and septicaemia
22 Jan 04 |  Medical notes

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