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Childhood Illnesses: TNL’s Guide to Meningitis

What is it?

Meningitis is an infection of the ‘meninges’, the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection, with bacterial meningitis being the most severe, but less common. It is most common in babies, young children and teenagers, but adults can also contract the illness.

Meningitis is usually caught from people who carry the viruses or bacteria in their nose or throat but are asymptomatic (do not have any symptoms). It can be spread through coughs, sneezes and transference of saliva (sharing cups, cutlery or kissing). Those who are ill with meningitis can also spread the illness, but this is less common.

The most distinctive symptom of meningitis is the rash that develops. The rash that occurs with meningitis can be identified by rolling a glass across the skin, if the rash does not fade, it is most likely to be meningitis. It is important to note that not everyone with meningitis will develop the rash at all; please look at the ‘symptoms’ section below to see other symptoms to be aware of.

Photo sourced from British Red Cross

Meningitis is usually diagnosed through medical tests to confirm whether the condition is being caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Viral meningitis usually clears within 7-10 days and can be treated at home. More severe bacterial meningitis is often treated in hospital where treatments such as intravenous (administered through veins) antibiotics, intravenous fluids, and oxygen masks are available.

With quick intervention, most cases of meningitis are successfully treated. However, if not treated in good time, some cases can lead to serious conditions, long-term problems or death. Long-term and serious symptoms can include:

  • loss of vision or hearing
  • loss of memory and concentration
  • recurrent seizures (epilepsy)
  • issue with co-ordination, movement and balance
  • limb amputation
  • septicaemia (blood poisoning)

“Overall, it's estimated up to 1 in every 10 cases of bacterial meningitis is fatal.”

Visit Meningitis - NHS (www.nhs.uk) for more information.

What are the Symptoms?

All symptoms may not occur and will be worse in severe cases (usually if bacterial meningitis is present). The symptoms for meningitis are:

  • headache with nausea or vomiting
  • severe headache that seems different than normal
  • sensitivity to light
  • loss of appetite
  • confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • being drowsy or unresponsive
  • sudden fever (38C or above)
  • seizures
  • being tired and lethargic
  • rash that does not disappear when a glass is rolled over
Little child being sick and holding her hand pressed against her forehead
Photo sourced from iStock

What is the Treatment?

The best treatment is prevention. As meningitis can be contracted from asymptomatic people, it is not always possible to tell who is carrying the virus. Regularly disinfecting surfaces and items, including bedding, drinks bottles and toys handled by children, and practicing good hygiene can help reduce transmission. Children should be encouraged not to share drinks or cutlery and toys that are placed in children’s mouths should be sanitised immediately.

It is essential that as soon as a child is suspected to have contracted meningitis, they are sent home immediately and seek medical advice. Remember bacterial meningitis can be fatal, so rapid intervention can be lifesaving.

Getting vaccinated against some forms of meningitis is an effective form of prevention; the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is routinely offered to babies at 1 year and a second dose at 3 years and 4 months. There are other vaccines available for children at different ages, visit www.nhs.uk for more information. They are also readily available for those who may develop serious side effects as a result of meningitis, such as those who already have underlying health conditions.

Photographer: National Cancer Institute | Source: Unsplash

There are many illnesses that can cause spots and rashes, so if practitioners and families are unsure, advice from a doctor should be sought. If making an appointment at a doctor’s surgery, inform them that meningitis is suspected.

If a child has contracted bacterial meningitis, the best ways to treat them are to:

  • Contact parents and send them home
  • Inform parents to seek medical advice from a GP immediately to confirm whether they have bacterial or viral meningitis
  • Call 999 or visit A&E if symptoms worsen, seizures are present, a child has a fever (over 38C), loses consciousness, or is severely dehydrated
Photographer: Ian Taylor | Source: Unsplash

If a child has contracted viral meningitis, the best ways to treat them are to:

  • Keep them at home - all following treatments should be done at home as they should not be in their setting
  • Monitor their temperature
  • Keep them hydrated, drinking plenty of water rather than juice
  • Give them paracetamol to bring down temperatures and ease discomfort, if needed. Labels should always be read to ensure age-appropriate dosage is given. Parent/guardian permission must be acquired before giving ANY medication to children. It is recommended that first aiders administer medications
  • Consult pharmacists or doctors for further advice and information on suitable treatments
  • Make an appointment with a GP if the symptoms do not improve or disappear after a suitable length of time. The suggested time frame is 7-10 days, but personal judgement should always be used. If symptoms worsen within this time frame, such as consistently high temperatures, seizures or loss of consciousness, seek advice from a medical professional by calling 111 or 999 immediately
Shot of a mother wearing a surgical mask making a phone call while aiding to her sick young son at home
Photo sourced from iStock

Fun Facts

(courtesy of HRF (healthresearchfunding.org))

“Meningitis can be caused by bacteria, a virus, or fungi. The infection causes swelling of the brain, brain stem, and spinal cord, which is why rapid medical treatment is so important.”

“The bacterial version of meningitis is the deadliest, accounting for the deaths of over 120,000 people around the world every year.”

“It is possible for someone to die from meningitis just 24 hours after the initial symptoms of the disease take place. About 10% of the cases of meningitis prove fatal even when treatment is received immediately.”

“Meningitis is most commonly known to affect kids under the age of 5 and teens between the ages of 15-19, but the nature of the disease means that it can affect anyone at any time. Meningitis may be more frequent in low-income areas and where vaccines are not as available, but it is still found in every corner of every society.”