Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) and cerebrospinal fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord, usually due to the spread of an infection.
Different micro-organisms tend to cause problems at different ages – bacterial meningitis more often affects children (80 per cent occurs in the under-16 age group and the majority are under five) while viral meningitis more commonly affects older children and young adults.
Left untreated, bacterial meningitis can be fatal. If you suspect that you or someone in your family has signs or symptoms of meningitis, seek medical care right away. There's no way to tell what kind of meningitis you have without seeing your doctor and undergoing testing.
Symptoms in young adults can include:
- High fever
- Severe headache
- Stiff neck
- Dislike of bright light
- Confusion and irritability
- Muscle pains, stomach cramps and diarrhoea
- Cold and pale hands and feet
- A rash that doesn't fade under pressure (try pressing a glass against the skin)
The diagnosis of meningitis is confirmed using blood tests and a test called a lumbar puncture. A fine needle is inserted, under local anaesthetic, into the person's spine to draw out fluid that can then be examined in a laboratory for infectious organisms.
Treatment depends on the cause of the meningitis, but in most cases intravenous antibiotics will be started immediately and continued if tests confirm the bacterial form.
If you suspect meningitis, get urgent medical advice.