Meningitis is an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. It can affect anyone but more usually infants, children, teenagers and young adults. The key to the condition is to spot the symptoms early and get the casualty to hospital as quickly as possible.
Meningitis is a complicated medical condition. There are two types - viral and bacterial. The purpose here is not to be overwhelmed by the science, but to equip the first aider with the knowledge to spot the symptoms and seek professional help.
Spotting the symptoms of meningitis will be the single most important tool available to any first aider. It must be remembered that it is not always possible to treat a condition and it’s spotting the symptoms and signposting to professional help that often saves a life.
Meningitis is further complicated by the fact that some of the symptoms can be related to other conditions such as influenza. When in doubt, the first aider should trust their instincts and not be afraid to seek help.
Remember - In a non-emergency call 111 and speak to an NHS advisor about the symptoms you are seeing.
Below are the key symptoms to look out for. They do not need to appear in any order and some may not be present at all:
- High temperature / fever
- Shivering or cold hands and feet
- Headache (severe)
- Dislike of bright lights
- Rash that does not fade under the pressure of a glass
- Stiff neck
- Feeling drowsy or unresponsive
It’s important to not wait for a rash to develop before taking action when suspecting meningitis. The casualty may have meningitis already without the onset of a rash and their life could already be in danger.
When a rash is present it can be useful to roll a glass over the rash and press downwards. A normal rash will typically fade under the pressure of the glass. If the rash does not fade, it could be a positive sign of meningitis. In this situation, proceed straight to the below treatment section.
When meningitis is suspected, there are two main routes of treatment available to the first aider:
- Call 999 / 112, stating you suspect meningitis and await the arrival of an ambulance
- Transport the casualty to the nearest Accident & Emergency (A&E) unit
Always use option one when a casualty is unresponsive / unconscious. The main time to use option two would be in the event that the casualty is still fully conscious and it appears more practical / quicker to obtain medical help at a hospital.
When awaiting the arrival of an ambulance team, prepare to place an unconscious casualty into the recovery position. Monitor breathing and where not suspected initiate CPR until medical support arrives and tells you to stop.
Remember - When transporting a casualty to hospital you must drive normally and within the rules of the Highway Code. If not confident it is safer to call an ambulance and await their arrival.
There has been a lot to take in so let’s look back at what can be done as a first aider when encountering meningitis:
- Meningitis is a complicated medical condition that can be difficult to spot
- Look out for a combination of the main symptoms and seek help when unsure
- Dial 999 / 112 when meningitis is suspected or visit A&E
- Prepare for basic life support whilst awaiting the arrival of an ambulance