As cooler weather descends upon us, take note of the five simple steps below to help prevent meningitis.
If you remember the late 1990s in New Zealand, you’ll recall that meningitis had its time in the spotlight, just like rheumatic fever has recently. A particular strain of the disease – meningococcal meningitis – frequented our evening news and children in schools were taught to cough into their elbows, not share water bottles and avoid kissing.
Measures such as these have helped slow the spread of the bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis, and today the disease is fairly uncommon. Although the risk is low, meningitis can affect anyone, anywhere, at any age.
Bacterial meningitis such as meningococcal meningitis can cause serious illness. It begins with flu-like symptoms and can quickly become life-threatening or may lead to permanent disability such as deafness or brain damage.
If you are armed with the right information, it is possible to prevent meningitis. Here are the top tips for preventing meningitis:
1. Get vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis & other childhood diseases
Meningococcal disease is an uncommon but life-threatening bacterial infection. The meningococcal vaccine is recommended for all children aged 11–18 years, routinely given at 11 years with a booster at 16, but also for:
- anyone who has been exposed to meningitis
- anyone traveling to or living where meningococcal disease is common
- military recruits and others living at close quarters like in a hostel
- people with certain immune system disorders or a damaged or missing spleen.
In New Zealand, the main types of meningococcal disease are type A, B and C, meaning you can contract one strain of the disease despite being immunised against another type. Getting vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox can also help prevent diseases that can lead to viral meningitis.
2. Wash hands regularly & don’t share personal items
The germs that cause meningitis spread just like cold and flu viruses and can be shared through kissing or sneezing. Meningococcal bacteria live in the back of the nose and throat and are carried by up to a quarter of the population, but they do not live long outside the human body.
To prevent the spread of these germs:
- Don't share personal items, such as food, lipstick, cigarettes, toothbrushes or towels.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before touching food our your face, with hot, soapy water.
- Use a hand sanitiser when you are away from clean water.
3. Keep your distance from infected people if you are well, and from healthy people if you are sick
If someone you know has a respiratory infection (cold or flu), keep your distance (at least 1 meter away!). If infected yourself, protect others by coughing or sneezing into a tissue (or your sleeve if you have to) then put the tissue in the rubbish and wash your hands.
4. Take care of your immune system
A healthy immune system works to fight off an infection. A diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins keeps you fighting fit, as does regular exercise and plenty of water and sleep. Also, avoid cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.
5. Get prompt treatment if you are concerned
Meningitis can look like the flu in its early stages and can be difficult to diagnose. It develops very quickly, so it’s important to get the right medical attention as soon as possible. If you think you are in danger of having contracted meningitis, act right away. Antibiotics can keep bacterial meningitis from developing.
Warning signs include:
|Babies & children||Teenager & adults|
What to do if you need advice
- Call the free Healthline number day or night on 0800 611 116.
- If it is an emergency, call 111 and ask for an ambulance.
- Say what the symptoms are.
- If you or someone you are concerned about has been sent home by the doctor, they must still be watched. Don’t leave them alone.
- If you or someone you are concerned about gets worse, go straight back to a doctor or the hospital. Insist on immediate action. Take this page with you if it helps you explain what is wrong.