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Meningitis and septicaemia in children and babies

Symptoms of meningitis can include a high temperature of 38C or above, shivering, being sick, headache, a rash that does not fade when a glass is rolled over it (but this will not always develop), stiff neck, dislike of bright lights, drowsiness, fits (seizures)

Meningitis is a very serious illness. It is an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. There are two main types of meningitis: bacterial and viral.

Call 999 or bring your child immediately to the nearest hospital emergency department that deals with children if you think your child is seriously ill

The germs that cause bacterial meningitis can also cause septicaemia (blood poisoning). Like meningitis, septicaemia is a serious illness that can be life-threatening.

Fast treatment can save lives and prevent long-term disability. Symptoms can include a rash, but not always.

If you're not sure, contact your GP or GP Out of Hours Service immediately. Bring your child immediately to your nearest hospital emergency department for children if:

  • you are unable to contact your GP
  • they are unable to see your child urgently

Meningitis and septicaemia symptoms

Babies and children with meningitis and septicaemia won't usually have every symptom.

They might not have any rash. Symptoms can appear in any order.

Think about meningitis and septicaemia if your child has any of the following.

A high temperature

A temperature of 38°C or higher or cold hands and feet and is shivering.

Dislikes bright lights

Squints or covers their eyes when exposed to light.

Headache and neck stiffness

Has a very bad headache or a stiff neck

Pain or body stiffness

Has aches or pains - stomach, joint or muscle pain. Has a stiff body with jerking movements or a floppy lifeless body.

Tummy symptoms

Is vomiting or refusing to feed.

Confused, tired or irritable

Is very sleepy, lethargic, not responding to you or difficult to wake. Is irritable when you pick them up or has a high-pitched or moaning cry. Is confused or delirious.

Skin colour

Has pale or bluish skin.

Unusual breathing

Is breathing fast or breathless.

Soft spot

Has a tense or bulging soft spot on their head - the soft spot on their head is called the anterior fontanelle.

Seizures

Has a seizure.

Rash

A rash that doesn’t fade when you press a glass tumbler against it.

How to check for a rash

Check all of your child's body.

Look for tiny red or brown pin-prick marks that do not fade when a glass is pressed to the skin.

These marks can later change into larger red or purple blotches and into blood blisters.

The rash can be harder to see on darker skin, so check on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet.

A rash is not the only symptom of blood poisoning (septicaemia). Do not wait for it to appear before getting medical help. The rash may be the last symptom to appear and can spread very quickly

The glass or tumbler test

  1. Press the bottom or side of a clear drinking glass firmly against the rash
  2. Check if the rash fades under the pressure of the glass
  3. If the rash does not fade, your child may have septicaemia caused by the meningitis germ
  4. Get medical help at once
Meningitis tumbler test
Meningitis tumbler test - The rash doesn't fade if you press the side of a clear glass firmly against the skin

Above: It doesn't fade if you press the side of a clear glass firmly against the skin

If you think your child is seriously ill, call 999 or bring your child immediately to the nearest emergency department

If you're not sure, contact your GP or GP Out of Hours Service immediately and ask for an urgent appointment. Bring your child immediately to your nearest hospital emergency department for children if:

  • you are unable to contact your GP
  • they are unable to see your child urgently

Types of meningitis

There are two main types of meningitis: bacterial and viral.

Viral meningitis is usually milder than bacterial meningitis. Most people make a full recovery from viral meningitis after 5 to 14 days.

Bacterial meningitis is more severe. It can be life-threatening and requires medical attention more quickly.

Septicaemia is a blood poisoning caused by bacteria. You can have septicaemia without meningitis.

How bacterial meningitis spreads

Bacterial meningitis is spread by prolonged close contact between people. The germ can be coughed out and breathed in. It can also be transferred in saliva, for example during intimate kissing.

The infection is usually spread by people who are not sick themselves. They carry the germs at the back of their nose or throat.

If your child is in close contact with meningitis

Your local public health doctor will advise you if your child has been in close contact with a person who has meningitis.

They might give a short course of antibiotics to your child.

Outside normal working hours you need to ask your GP or doctor on call for advice.

Meningitis vaccines

Make sure your baby gets all their vaccines on time from your GP. Vaccines are the best protection you can give your baby to prevent meningitis.

A baby who has had all their vaccines might still get meningitis. Vaccines don't prevent every kind of meningitis.

Related topics

Your child's vaccines

Health A to Z: Meningitis

Page last reviewed: 26/03/2018
Next review due: 26/03/2021