British scientists said on Wednesday they have identified early signs of meningitis and blood poisoning which could improve detection of the disease and save lives.
Leg pain, cold hands and feet and abnormal skin color develop within 12 hours after infection —long before the more classic signs of the illness such as a rash, headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light and impaired consciousness.
“Doctors and parents could be able to identify children with this potentially fatal infection at an earlier stage and before they get very unwell,” said Dr. Matthew Thompson of the University of Oxford in England.
Meningitis is a bacterial infection of the lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. It is spread from person to person by sneezing, coughing, kissing and living in close quarters such as dormitories and military barracks.
About 5-10 percent of patients die from the illness, usually within 24-48 hours after symptoms begin, according to the World Health Organization.
Patients are treated with antibiotics. The disease can cause brain damage, hearing loss and learning disability.
“If children are picked up (diagnosed) earlier in the course of their illness they should do better because they will be referred to hospital more quickly,” Thompson said.
He and his team identified the early symptoms after analyzing questionnaires filled in by parents of 448 children with meningitis. One hundred and three of the children had died.
They found that 72 percent of children had early signs of infection. Most had no symptoms in the first 4-6 hours but were close to death after 24 hours.
Classic symptoms of the illness did not appear until 13-22 hours after infection. The median time for admission to hospital was 19 hours.
Children with meningitis are misdiagnosed in about half of cases, according to Thompson, because early in the disease doctors mistake it for a common virus.
“We believe our evidence is sufficiently robust to argue that we need a diagnostic paradigm shift,” Thompson said in a report published online by The Lancet medical journal.
“Although we must avoid undermining the importance of classic symptoms, we could substantially speed up diagnosis if the emphasis was shifted to early recognition,” he added.