Action to take
Recognising the disease in the early stages is important, but can be very difficult - because it can easily be mistaken for common ailments such as gastroenteritis, the flu, a hangover or even muscle strain.
Even experienced doctors can make mistakes in diagnosis - so it's vital to closely monitor the patient and use your gut feelings to decide whether the illness is in any way different or progresses more rapidly than what you'd normally expect.
Monitor the patient closely
Because you can deteriorate so rapidly with this illness, it's important to closely monitor anyone with some of the symptoms listed. Young adults, in particular, should alert a friend, flatmate or family member that they are sick, and ask them to make regular checks. Make sure you lift their clothing to check their whole body at regular intervals for any sign of a rash (but don't wait for a rash to appear - it may not appear at all).
If you suspect meningococcal disease, rush the patient to the nearest doctor or hospital. Insist on seeing someone straight away, and clearly tell them all the symptoms. If it is meningococcal disease, antibiotics (such as penicillin) must be given as soon as possible, preferably straight into the vein.
If you or the doctor are not 100% sure that is is meningococcal disease, but have a strong suspicion, best to err on the side of caution, and give the antibiotics anyway. Make sure you know what treatment your doctor has administered so you can pass on full details to hospital staff.
If a doctor reassures you that it is not meningococcal disease, but it gets worse, or you have a gut feeling it's serious, don't be afraid to go back, visit another doctor or go straight to hospital. If it is meningococcal disease, vital hours or even minutes lost can mean the difference between life and death.
Treat the rash as an emergency
A pin prick rash or purple rash indicates bleeding from the blood vessels into the skin, and means the disease is at a critical stage. At the first sign of a rash you should be seeking urgent treatment. Every minute counts. The earlier the patient receives treatment, the better the chance of a full recovery.
Get priority assessment and treatment
Tragically, many deaths have been caused because a doctor or nurse didn't recognise the symptoms, and so correct diagnosis and treatment has been delayed until it was too late.
If you go to the emergency ward of a hospital, or to a doctor, tell them immediately that you suspect meningococcal disease, and describe the symptoms in detail. Insist that you receive immediate assessment and antibiotics - as any delay could mean the difference between life and death. If a diagnostic blood test is advised, request that antibiotics are given while waiting for the results of the test.
The incubation period (time between picking up the disease and the symptoms appearing) period is 2-7 days. Anyone who's had close contact with the patient in the 7 days prior to the disease appearing (such as intimate kissing contacts or people living in the same house) should be treated with antibiotics to kill any bacteria in the throat and nose. However they should still be vigilant for any signs of the disease appearing.
Note that once someone has been treated for meningococcal disease, they cannot pass it on to anyone else, so there's no need to keep your distance! Just take the normal precautions, as you would with anyone. You're more likely to catch the disease from a healthy carrier than a person who's recently had meningococcal disease.
Information & Images courtesy 'Fighting Meningococcal Diseases' 2003 Media One