Meningitis: risks and safety tips for students

Meningitis: risks and safety tips for students

With meningitis and its dangers to university students recently in the news, here’s a quick reminder of the warning signs of meningitis, and how to keep yourself or your student child safe.

Who is at risk of meningitis?

In short, everyone is at risk. There are, however, more vulnerable groups of people, including babies, children under five years old, teenagers and university students.

What causes meningitis?

Meningitis occurs when the lining or ‘meninges’ of the brain become inflamed. The most common causes are bacteria and viruses. Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis. Whilst viral meningitis is rarely life threatening, it can still make the individual very unwell and recovery is often very slow.

Bacterial meningitis can be fatal, or cause life changing injuries, such as brain damage or loss of limbs from amputation. It requires an urgent admission to hospital and immediate treatment with IV antibiotics if serious injury is to be avoided.

Why are university students particularly at risk of meningitis at this time of year?

Students are more at risk in the first few months of university when, for the first time, they are living in very close accommodation with people from different environments or countries of the world. Their bodies are exposed suddenly to new bacteria and viruses.

They may also be living away from their parents’ supervision and be less able to look after their own health, or to recognise when they are seriously unwell. The early signs of meningitis can be very similar to common illnesses, such as a cold or the flu, or even to a serious hangover. This means that these early signs are often missed, or not taken seriously, especially for new university students who may assume that they have ‘freshers flu’, which is often seen as a normal experience for new students in the first term or semester.

One in four 15 to 19-year-olds carry potential meningitis-causing bacteria in the back of their throats, compared to one in ten of the rest of the population. It is possible to carry the bacteria without becoming unwell but to pass it on to someone else by coughing, sneezing and kissing.

What are the warnings signs of meningitis?

According to the charity, Meningitis Now, the early symptoms usually include one or more of the following (in any order):

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Muscle pain
  • Stomach cramps

These early symptoms can easily be confused with other, less serious illnesses. Many people assume that meningitis always presents with a rash which does not fade under pressure.  Meningitis Now advise you to not wait for a rash to develop, but to trust your instincts if you think you are seriously unwell and seek medical help immediately. This is because the classic rash can be a late sign, only developing when the illness has already become life-threatening, and often does not appear at all.

More advanced symptoms may include one or more of the following:

  • drowsy or difficult to wake
  • confusion or irritability
  • pale blotchy skin, spots or a rash which doesn’t fade in colour when the side of a glass is pressed firmly against the skin
  • neck stiffness
  • severe headache
  • photophobia (discomfort in bright light)
  • fits (also known as seizures or convulsions)

Symptoms and signs can appear in any order, with not all present and in any combination.

Meningitis is a medical emergency. Students should know the signs, and that if they or their friends experience any of these signs, they should call 999 immediately.

What vaccinations are available?

Meningitis vaccinations do not currently protect against all possible strains of bacteria but can help protect against many of the most common causes.

Aside from the various vaccinations that are available to babies, the next vaccination offered to teenagers, sixth formers and new university students, is the meningitis ACWY vaccine. This offers protection against four types of bacteria that can cause meningitis. The NHS recommends that all students going to university for the first time should be vaccinated, even if they have had vaccinations as a baby. Free ACWY vaccination is available for young people up to their 25th birthday.

In September 2019, it was reported that the rates of childhood vaccinations had decreased, exposing greater numbers of children and young adults to the risks of this deadly disease. Boyes Turner support the important work done by charities such as Meningitis Now to raise awareness and highlight the importance of vaccinations in reducing the damage caused by this devastating condition.

What else can university students do to protect themselves from meningitis?

Awareness is key and Meningitis Now works closely with universities to increase awareness amongst students of the risks and means of protecting oneself from meningitis. Students and parents can find lots of helpful advice on the Meningitis Now website. There is also a helpful app which can be downloaded to ensure that information and advice is easily to hand.

As well as ensuring that they are up to date with their vaccinations before going to university, students should:

  • register with a GP surgery or health centre on arrival at university and make sure that they know how to contact their GP
  • look out for themselves and each other and if feeling unwell, let someone know that they are unwell so that they can check on them, and recognise or report any worrying symptoms

What are the long-term effects of meningitis?

Meningitis can be fatal (one in every ten cases will cause death) or lead to life-changing injuries for the individual.

“It is estimated up to one person in every two or three who survives bacterial meningitis is left with one or more permanent problem” – NHS.

The most common complications identified by the NHS are:

  • hearing and vision loss
  • epilepsy
  • problems with memory, concentration, co-ordination and balance
  • learning difficulties and behavioural problems
  • loss of limbs (amputation can be necessary to stop the infection spreading)
  • bone and joint problems
  • kidney problems

Boyes Turner’s nationally acclaimed lawyers have helped individuals and their families recover compensation after negligent delay in diagnosis or treatment of meningitis has led to life-changing injuries or death. We work with trusted, experienced experts who help us investigate each client’s treatment with expertise and care. Where an individual’s death or long-term injury and disability was caused by a delay, we help our clients obtain interim payments and settlements to ease financial hardship and pay for specialist equipment, adapted accommodation, therapies and care.

If you or a member of your family have suffered serious disability or have been bereaved as a result of negligent treatment of meningitis, and you would like to find out more about making a claim, contact the specialist medical negligence team by email at mednegclaims@boyesturner.com.

The service was personal, professional and considered. I was treated so kindly and in the end I knew that not only had I found the right organisation but also the right person.

Boyes Turner client

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