How to spot meningitis at university

It can often feel like a hangover

Every year at universities all over the UK, students lose their lives to meningitis. It sends shockwaves of fear and compassion through a campus, but we still have hardly any idea how this deadly disease can be contracted, what the symptoms are and how to get rid of it.

It feels a lot like a hangover, and living in halls of residence or a shared house of a lot of people while at university increases everyone’s chances of contracting meningitis. Two years ago, Alisha Bartolini passed away from Meningitis after a night out in Liverpool. At the time it was mistaken for a bad ecstacy pill.

What is it?

A inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal chord (meninges) caused by an infection. It is usually caused by bacteria or virus, but can be brought about by injury, cancer or certain drugs.

How does it spread?

Bacterial meningitis is spread from person to person. The bacteria are spread by exchanging saliva or spit during close or lengthy contact, like kissing or coughing. There is a greater risk if you are living in the same household.

If you have close contact with a person who has viral meningitis, you may become infected with that virus. However, you are unlikely to develop meningitis from this. Only a small number of people who get infected with the viruses that cause meningitis will actually develop it.

What are the symptoms?

The first symptoms are usually fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell. The symptoms which are more characteristic of meningitis and therefore more of a sign are limb pain, pale skin, and cold hands and feet, often appearing earlier than the also characteristic rash, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights and confusion.

The rash, unlike a normal common rash, will not disappear when a glass is rolled over it. This is a clear way to test for meningitis. The rash can appear as red or brown spots which may turn into larger bruises or blood blisters as symptoms develop.

You are advised not to wait for a rash to appear, the patient may be in serious need of attention before this symptom appears.

What does it feel like?

It is said to feel similar to a hangover, hence why it is often missed within student halls of residence and groups of young people who are drinking often. It is important to be cautious and always aware of the risk so that the symptoms can be spotted, rather than passed off as the result of a heavy night out.

How can you spot it?

Always be vigilant, and don’t assume it’s a hangover. If you have any concern that you, or a friend, might have any of the symptoms of meningitis, be sure to check for rashes (but don’t wait for them), see how the patient reacts around bright lights and see if they can touch their chin to their chest without a great deal of pain or stiffness. These are often tell-tale signs as they are characteristic of the disease.


What to do if you get it?

Trust your instinct and seek medical attention immediately. If you are wrong then at least they are safe. It is better to call an ambulance straight away rather than waiting for more symptoms, otherwise it could be too late. Bacterial meningitis can be treated with a number of antibiotics. It is important that treatment be started as soon as possible.

Can it be prevented?

Vaccines give excellent protection, but cannot yet prevent all forms. Vaccines for different forms are available in countries around the world. Babies are at increased risk for bacterial meningitis compared to people in other age groups. However, people of any age can develop bacterial meningitis.

Infectious diseases tend to spread where large groups of people gather together. Outbreaks of meningococcal disease, caused by N. meningitidis, have been reported from college campuses. There are certain medical conditions, medications, and surgical procedures that put people at increased for meningitis.

Microbiologists routinely exposed to meningitis-causing bacteria are at increased risk for meningitis. Those who travel to the meningitis belt in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly during the dry season, or to Mecca during the annual Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage may be at increased risk for meningococcal meningitis.