Meningitis is the leading infectious cause of death in early childhood and so, unsurprisingly, a major source of anxiety for parents.
There are specific symptoms, but some children and young people have non-specific meningitis symptoms that are difficult to distinguish from common viral infections. Here, we list the possible signs and symptoms of meningitis, so you know what to look out for if your baby, child or teenager is ill.
What is meningitis?
It is inflammation of the membranes that enclose the brain and spinal cord.
What causes meningitis?
It can be viral or bacterial. In the UK, the most common bacterial forms are meningococcal and pneumococcal.
Viral meningitis is more common but less serious than bacterial meningitis. The meningococcal bacteria are present in the back of the throat and spread by coughing, sneezing and kissing. The bacteria can't live outside our bodies for very long, so it isn't a highly contagious disease. Around 10% of the population carries the bacteria.
What is meningococcal septicaemia?
It is blood poisoning caused by organisms that can also cause meningitis.
Who is most at risk of meningitis?
- Children under five
- Young people aged 14 to 24
- Elderly people
What are the symptoms of meningitis?
Symptoms can appear in any order and at the same time. Some symptoms may not appear at all.
- Stiff neck (caused by inflammation in the spinal cord area)
- Aversion to bright lights (photophobia)
- Stiff or jerky movements (owing to inflammation of the meninges around brain and spinal cord)
- Confusion or altered mental state - delirium, drowsiness, impaired consciousness
What are the symptoms of septicaemia?
- Cold hands and feet (owing to reduced blood flow to limbs)
- Leg pain (ditto)
- Abnormal skin colour (owing to lack of oxygen in blood)
- Non-fading rash (owing to capillaries leaking and blood accumulating beneath the skin)
Press a clear glass firmly against the skin
If the rash doesn't fade when the glass is pressed against it, seek medical help immediately as this could be a sign of septicaemia
If the rash fades, keep checking because in rare cases the rash can change from fading to non-fading
On dark skin, check for a rash on lighter skin eg palms of hands soles of feet, finger tips
These are part of the body's response to an infection and are easy to confuse with the symptoms of other common illnesses
- Vomiting and/or diarrhoea
- Severe joint or muscle pain
- Breathing difficulties
- Irritability and restless behaviour
- Severe lethargy and tiredness
- Refusing food or drink
- Ill appearance
What are the symptoms of meningitis in babies?
- Blotchy or pale skin tone, turning blue
- Poor feeding
- Tense or bulging fontanelle on head
- High-pitched crying, irritability (especially when touched)
What does the meningitis rash look like?
Meningococcal septicaemia appears as a rash that varies from small pin prick-sized marks to larger red or purple bruises.
The rash can appear anywhere on the body.
Only 40% of patients with meningococcal disease will develop the rash. It usually appears between six and 12 hours after the first symptoms.
Don't wait for the rash to appear is you suspect meningitis - it's a late symptom and you need to get medical attention for your child as quickly as possible.
What are the long-term effects of meningitis?
Children and older people with viral meningitis usually make a full recovery, but sadly about half of all children with bacterial meningitis will have lasting effects, such as loss of limbs, scarring, brain damage or deafness.
Is there a meningitis vaccination?
Children get vaccines to help prevent many cases of viral and bacterial meningitis. These include:
- Meningitis C vaccination
- Measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) - the same virus that causes mumps is a common cause of meningitis
- Hib vaccination
- Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV)
These are all offered as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme. Your GP will know if your child's vaccinations are up to date.
But the available vaccines don't prevent all types of meningitis, so it's important you know the signs and symptoms even if your child has been vaccinated against some forms of meningitis.
How many people in the UK get meningitis?
Around 3,400 people a year get bacterial meningitis and septicaemia. Meningococcal disease usually presents as bacterial meningitis (15% of cases) or septicaemia (25% of cases), or as a combination of the two (60% of cases).
What Mumsnetters say about meningitis symptoms
- Cold feet, very cold, often the first symptom. SkipTheLightFanjango
- In babies they often have a high-pitched cry, and tend to not like being held, and arch their backs. Johnnydeppsnewmrs
- It's so easy to confuse with hangover and freshers' flu that it could easily be missed. wonkylegs
- Definitely don't wait for a rash, if I'd done this then my son would be dead. He was very sleepy and not really rousable, didn't want milk, moaned every time he was moved and felt very warm to touch but actually didn't have a high temperature to start off with. His feet got cold once he was in hospital. maxmissie
- My teenage daughter had viral meningitis: unbearable headache, neck stiffness, photophobia and fever. No D&V though. It took her several weeks to fully recover, and she was exceptionally tired. sneezecakesmum
- You can now vaccinate against some types of pneumococcal meningitis (although not all) and for kids who weren't automatically offered this vaccination you can make an appointment with your GP to arrange one yourself. LoveSewingBee
- My daughter developed septicaemia and it was only when she got a non-fading rash that the medical professionals realised how ill she was, despite seeing doctors twice within the previous 36 hours. For anyone reading, always trust your instinct and get a further opinion if you have ongoing doubts about how your child is. beautifulgirls
- Get support and advice on Mumsnet Talk if you've been affected by meningitis
- Download meningitis symptoms app from The Meningitis Trust
Last updated: 5 months ago