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Meningitis in babies and children

Children under five are most at risk from meningitis and septicaemia so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms, and what to do if you think your child might have meningitis.

Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable to meningitis and septicaemia as they cannot easily fight infection because their immune system is not yet fully developed.

Meningitis and septicaemia can strike quickly so it’s important to make sure you know the signs and symptoms and seek urgent medical help if you are concerned. It can be reassuring to know that bacterial meningitis and septicaemia are not very common now as a result of the childhood immunisation programme.

What is meningitis and septicaemia?

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.

Septicaemia is blood poisoning and is caused by the same germs as meningitis. It can occur with or without meningitis and is the more severe form of the disease.

Signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia

As babies and toddlers can’t tell you how they’re feeling, it can be easy to miss vital signs and symptoms of meningitis. Learn what to look out for, trust your instincts and seek urgent medical help if you’re concerned. Also find out how to perform the glass test below.

A baby or young child with meningitis or septicaemia may:

  • have a high fever, with cold hands and feet
  • vomit and refuse to feed
  • have a severe headache
  • feel agitated and not want to be picked up
  • become drowsy, floppy and unresponsive
  • grunt or breathe rapidly
  • have an unusual high-pitched or moaning cry
  • have pale, blotchy skin, and a red rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over it
  • have a tense, bulging soft spot on their head (fontanelle)
  • have a stiff neck and dislike bright lights (both less common in young children)
  • have convulsions or seizures (fits)
  • be confused and delirious
  • have limb/joint.muscle pain

The above symptoms can appear in any order, and some may not appear at all.

The rash can be harder to see on dark skin, in which case check for spots on paler areas like the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, on the tummy, inside the eyelids and on the roof of the mouth.

However, don't wait for a rash to develop. If your child is unwell and getting worse, seek medical help immediately.

The glass test

If you press the side of a clear glass firmly against the skin and the rash doesn't fade, it's a sign of meningococcal septicaemia. A person with septicaemia may have a rash of tiny ‘pin pricks’ that later develops into purple bruising.

A fever with a rash that doesn't fade under pressure is a medical emergency, and you should seek immediate medical help.

How can I protect my child?

There are now four vaccines routinely offered for babies and young children in the UK to help protect against some types of meningitis and septicaemia. These are Hib, PCV, Men C, Men A and a new Men B vaccine which was introduced in September 2015. [UK babies born on or after 1 July 2015 are being offered the Men B vaccine as part of the routine immunisation schedule and babies born on or after 1 May 2015 are being offered the vaccine as part of a one off catch-up campaign. If your baby was born between 1 May and 30 June 2015 and they received their 16 week vaccinations before 1st September 2015, you are encouraged to contact your GP’s surgery to book an appointment to receive the new Men B vaccination. While some GP practices may take the decision to call babies in, there is no requirement for them to do so. If you want to make sure your baby has the Men B vaccination, and they were born between 1 May and 30 June 2015, please do call your surgery to make an appointment.

Read more about the full Childhood Immunisation Programme.

Types of meningitis

There are two types of meningitis: bacterial and viral.

Bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is caused by bacteria, such as Neisseria meningitidis or Streptococcus pneumoniae.

Bacterial meningitis is very serious and should be treated as a medical emergency. Bacterial meningitis most commonly affects children under five years of age, particularly babies under the age of one. It's also common among teenagers aged 15 to 19. 

It's essential to know the signs and symptoms, and to get medical help if you're worried.

Viral meningitis

Viral meningitis is caused by viruses that can be spread through coughing, sneezing and poor hygiene. It is the most common, and less serious, type of meningitis. Viral meningitis is most common in children and more widespread during the summer.

Diagnosing meningitis

Diagnosing meningitis can be difficult because it often comes on quickly and can be easily mistaken for flu, as many of the symptoms are the same. However, it's very important to seek immediate medical help if you notice any of the symptoms of meningitis, particularly in a young child.

Don't wait for a purple rash to appear, because not everyone with meningitis gets one. If meningitis is suspected, treatment will usually be started before the diagnosis is confirmed. This is because some of the tests can take several hours to complete, and it could be dangerous to delay treatment.

The doctors will carry out a physical examination to look for signs of meningitis (see above) or signs of septicaemia, such as a rash. They will also carry out a number of other tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Treating meningitis

Viral meningitis usually gets better within a couple of weeks, with plenty of rest, painkillers for the headache and anti-sickness medication for the vomiting.

Bacterial meningitis is treated with intravenous antibiotics (delivered through a vein). Admission to hospital will be needed, with severe cases treated in intensive care, so the body's vital functions can be monitored and supported.

Always seek advice if you are concerned about meningitis

If you think your child has meningitis or septicaemia, get medical help immediately.

  • Trust your instincts - you know your child best.
  • Describe the symptoms and say you think it could be meningitis or septicaemia.
  • If you have had medical advice and are still worried, get medical help again.

This article is based on information from Meningitis Now and NHS Choices.

Further information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.

NCT and the British Red Cross run First Aid courses for parents with babies and children up to 12 years old on life-saving topics, such as meningitis, CPR, stopping bleeding and what to do if your child is choking. Find your nearest course.

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

Meningitis Now is a meningitis patient group and a charity dedicated to fighting meningitis in the UK. Find lots more information about meningitis on their website.

NHS Choices has information and advice on meninigitis.

Further information on immunisation for children can be found at NHS Choices.