Meningitis and septicaemia

Parent and ill child with meningitis

Meningitis and septicaemia can kill in hours, so it is important for every parent to know what to watch out for in their child

What every parent needs to know about meningitis

Meningitis and septicaemia can affect anyone but they are most common in babies, young children, teenagers and young adults.

Fortunately, most children have natural resistance to the bugs that cause meningitis and septicaemia. Vaccinations will also help protect against the main bugs, but not all cases can be prevented through vaccination.

Meningitis and septicaemia can be very serious if not treated quickly so it’s very important to know what symptoms to look out for. Trust your instincts and seek urgent medical help if you are worried.

What are meningitis and septicaemia?

Meningitis is inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord – the meninges. Septicaemia is poisoning of the blood, and is a more life-threatening infection.

Signs and symptoms

Meningitis and septicaemia can be hard to recognise. This is especially the case in small children who get lots of minor illnesses with similar symptoms to meningitis in the early stages, and can’t explain how they are feeling. Keep a close eye on your children when they’re ill and seek medical advice if you’re worried.

Symptoms to watch out for:

  • Fever: a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • Vomiting
  • Severe headache
  • Rash
  • Stiff neck
  • Aversion to bright lights
  • Very sleepy/difficult to wake
  • Confused/delirious
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Seizure (fits) may also be seen

Other signs in babies:

  • Unusual grunting sounds
  • Tense or bulging soft spot on their head
  • Refusing to feed
  • Irritable when picked up, with a high pitched or moaning cry
  • A stiff body with jerky movements, or else floppy and lifeless
  • Fever can be absent in babies less than three months of age

These symptoms can appear in any order and some may not appear. Trust your instincts and seek medical advice. If you think you or your child might be seriously ill, call 999 or go to A&E immediately.

The rash

You may have heard about a blotchy rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over. Fever with spots/rash that do not fade under pressure is a medical emergency so call 999 or go to A&E immediately.

Meninigitis glass

However, it’s really important that you don’t wait for a rash before you act as it doesn’t always appear. If someone is ill and getting worse, get medical help immediately.

The spots/rash on dark skin can be more difficult to see so do not wait for a rash.


Vaccinations help protect against the main bugs that can cause meningitis and septicaemia. The following are part of the routine schedule in the UK:

  • MenB vaccine – offered to babies aged eight weeks, followed by a second dose at 16 weeks, and a booster at one year
  • 6-in-1 vaccine – offered to babies at eight, 12 and 16 weeks of age
  • Pneumococcal vaccine– offered to babies at eight weeks, 16 weeks and one year old
  • Hib/MenC vaccine– offered to babies at one year of age
  • MMR vaccine – offered to babies at one year and a second dose at three years and four months
  • Meningitis ACWY vaccine – offered to teenagers, sixth formers and students going to university for the first time

The MenACWY vaccine is also available as a travel vaccine for people visiting parts of the world where they are at increased risk of contracting meningococcal disease.

For more information about the vaccinations, visit the NHS website.

What Mumsnetters say

  • “Definitely don't wait for a rash; if I'd done this 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.”
  • “As a children's nurse – and a parent – I would say get your children vaccinated. We have. Be aware of the symptoms – it's not necessarily meningitis but the symptoms of sepsis.”
  • “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.”