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Meningitis signs and symptoms

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Meningitis is an infection of the meninges (protective membranes) that surround the brain and spinal cord. This infection causes the meninges to become swollen and in some cases can damage the nerves and brain.

Meningitis signs and symptoms in children

Absolutely anyone of any age can get meningitis, although babies and young children are often affected. The signs and symptoms to look out for in children are as follows:

  • they may develop a blotchy red rash that doesn’t fade when you roll a glass over it
  • they may appear confused and unresponsive
  • they may cry continuously
  • they may feel agitated and may not want to be touched
  • a very high fever with cold hands and feet
  • some children become very sleepy and you may find it difficult to wake them up

Symptoms of meningitis in older children and adults can include:

  • vomiting
  • severe headaches
  • stiff neck
  • high temperature (fever) of the 38*c (100.4*F) or over
  • sensitivity to light
  • rapid breathing
  • the distinctive skin rash, although not everyone will have this
  • the general feeling of being unwell

It’s vital to remember not everyone will get all of the above symptoms. If you notice any symptoms of meningitis, seek medical help immediately.

Little baby crying possible meningitis

Types of meningitis

There are two forms of meningitis:

  • bacterial meningitis – this is when bacteria such as Neisseria meningitidis or Streptococcus pneumoniae are spread through close contact. This form of meningitis is very serious and should be treated as a medical emergency, if left untreated it can cause severe brain damage and affect the blood (septicaemia). There is currently no vaccine to prevent the meningococcal group B disease. It is the most common bacterial meningitis in the UK and children under five years of age are at greater risk.
  • viral meningitis – this is caused by viruses which can be spread through sneezing, coughing and poor hygiene. This is the less serious and most common type of meningitis, it is difficult to estimate the number of cases because the symptoms are so mild they can be mistaken for flu. Viral meningitis is common in children and thrives during the summer months.

Once your health professional suspects a case of meningitis, treatment will begin before a diagnosis has been confirmed. This is due to tests that can take several hours to complete and delaying treatment could be dangerous.

Treating meningitis

Viral meningitis usually gets better with plenty of rest and painkillers within a couple of weeks.

Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics, this treatment will require hospital admission. Severe cases will be treated in the intensive care unit.

Several decades ago the majority of people who contracted meningitis died, nowadays deaths are mainly caused by septicaemia (blood poisoning) rather than the meningitis. Meningococcal disease is the combination of septicaemia and meningitis and causes death in around one in 10 cases.


The best way to prevent meningitis is to make sure your up-to-date with your vaccinations. Children in the UK should receive the available vaccines during their childhood vaccination programme.

Make sure you check your travel vaccinations are up-to-date before travelling to certain parts of the world.



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