Young people with deadly meningitis are being mistaken as drunk

Doctors are mistaking symptoms of deadly meningitis in young people for them being drunk, high or hungover, report warns

  • Teens are more at risk of dying from the strain MenW, Public Health England said
  • The strain can cause meningitis or sepsis which is rapidly life-threatening 
  • Symptoms mimic other illnesses such as flu or food poisoning and intoxication 

Young people with deadly meningitis are being mistaken as drunk or high by doctors, health experts have warned.

Teenagers are more at risk of contracting the MenW strain because they spend time around lots of new people, who may carry the bacteria responsible. 

Symptoms of the infection mimic other illnesses such as the flu, food poisoning or intoxication, officials at Public Health England said.

The agency’s report follows cases where meningitis has been missed, including an 18-year-old boy who died from the infection just hours after being diagnosed with food poisoning. 

Public health experts suggest doctors are mistaking the symptoms of a deadly strain of meningitis with being ‘drunk or high’. The condition can mimic other diseases such as the flu

Cases of the MenW form have soared over the past decade in England, from 22 in 2009/10 to 225 in 2016/17. 

The death rate for most strains of meningococcal meningitis is around five per cent.

However, for the more aggressive MenW ST-11 strain, which is striking more people each year, it is 13 per cent — and around one in three teenagers who contract it dies.

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Experts are unsure why teenagers are so prone to carrying the germs – around a quarter – but suspect it is due to living and partying together. 

Older teenagers and university students are encouraged to get the Men ACWY vaccine to protect themselves against the deadly bacteria. 

This group is thought to be at a higher risk of infection because they mix closely with lots of new people – some of whom may unknowingly carry the meningococcal bacteria at the back of their noses and throats. 


Government officials added the Men ACWY vaccine onto the national immunisation programme in August 2015.

The decision was made because cases of the virulent W strain of the infection have soared in recent years, with 211 infections in 2015/16.

Teenagers and university students are encouraged to get the Men ACWY vaccine to protect themselves against the deadly bacteria.

This group is thought to be at a higher risk of infection because they mix closely with lots of new people – some of whom may unknowingly carry the bacteria at the back of their noses and throats.

Vinny Smith, chief executive at Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) said: ‘It’s a tragedy for a young person to die from a disease if rapid diagnosis and treatment could have offered a chance of survival.

‘Patients who are seriously ill with meningococcal disease can be confused or delirious and we often hear stories of young people who are initially thought to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, when in fact they needed urgent medical help to fight an infection.’    

MenW has different symptoms to other kinds of meningococcal disease. 

These include mainly gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea and headaches, muscle pain, fever and cold hands and feet. 

Often these early symptoms come before, or even without, the commonly associated meningitis symptoms of a rash that doesn’t blanch under the pressure of a glass, or aversion to light.

Mr Smith said: ‘The new strain of meningococcal W meningitis and septicaemia (MenW) has been spreading in recent years and often these patients have mainly gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting, but without the characteristic non-blanching rash.

‘We welcome the publication of this letter which highlights why early recognition of meningococcal disease is absolutely crucial.’

The letter by PHE officials, published in the Journal of Infection, details the case of an 18-year-old boy who developed a headache, cold hands and feet, stomach ache and vomiting over a period of two days. 

A diagnosis of food poisoning was given when the worried parents phoned the out-of-hours doctor. 

Tragically, the boy died just hours later, and it later became apperent he had had the early signs of septicaemia/sepsis. 

Only toxicology samples were taken for analysis for drugs and alcohol which meant the cause of death was not found immediately.

A drug-related cause of death was suspected because of the age of the person who died. However, when their body was eventually tested for meningitis and septicaemia, meningitis W was confirmed.  

In 2014, an 18-year-old boy called Ollie Towler-Jones died a shocking eight hours after waking up with a crashing headache and neusea at a festival – typical symptoms for a teenager’s hangover. 

His friends later found him struggling to breathe and unable to move his legs, which were covered in a purple rash. His complexion had turned grey, with purple blotches behind his ears.

He died at the medical tent later on, where his mother, Jo, was present.

She believed he contracted the confirmed MenW strain whilst on holiday a few months before. She said: ‘The boys were sharing bottles of drink and straws, cigarettes and kissing girls.’

Around a quarter of this year’s student intake will carry meningococcal bacteria in their noses and throats — and it is spread by close contact such as kissing, sneezing or coughing. This compares to one in ten of the general population. 

Those who recover from meningitis can be left with serious long-term health problems, such as amputation, deafness, blindness, epilepsy and learning difficulties.

The letter said that although drug deaths did account for most sudden and unexpected deaths in teenagers and young adults, infections should be considered earlier – and that investigations for infectious diseases should be routinely performed in all fatal cases where the death is not immediately obvious.  


Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.

This infection causes these membranes (the meninges) to become inflamed, which in some cases can damage the nerves and brain.

It is considered a medical emergency and can lead to death, or long term complications like limb amputations and blindness.

In the UK, six different strains of bacterial meningitis – A, B, C, W, X, and Y – cause the most disease.

For decades meningococcal B (MenB) has been the main group, and meningococcal C (MenC) was also common until the MenC vaccine was introduced, reducing cases to just a handful each year.

However, cases of meningococcal W (MenW) have risen steadily.

It often has different symptoms to other kinds of meningitis.

Several adults with MenW septicaemia have had mainly gastrointestinal symptoms, but without the typical rash that most people associate with meningitis. As as a result, they have progressed rapidly to death.

University students up to the age of 25 are now offered a vaccine to protect against MenW.

It protects against four different causes of meningitis and septicaemia – meningococcal (Men) A, C, W and Y diseases.

Source: Meningitis Now

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