Meningitis

Questions and answers:

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. This causes pressure on the brain resulting in symptoms such as severe headache, stiff neck, dislike of bright light, drowsiness and convulsions/fits. Meningitis can progress very rapidly and can lead to deafness, blindness, epilepsy and learning difficulties. It can even lead to death.

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What is septicaemia?

Septicaemia (blood poisoning) is a serious, life-threatening infection that gets worse very quickly and the risk of death is higher compared with meningitis. The signs of cold hands and feet, pale skin, vomiting and being very sleepy or difficult to wake can come on quickly. 

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How do I do the glass test?

Press the side of a clear drinking glass firmly against the rash so you can see if the rash fades and loses colour under pressure. If it doesn’t change colour, contact your GP immediately.

The spots and rash are more difficult to see on darker skin, so check paler areas such as the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and the area around the eye.

Spots or rashes may fade at first, so to be sure – keep checking. Be aware, however, that the rash does not always appear.

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What are the main symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia in babies?

In babies, the main symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia may include:

  • refusing feeds, vomiting
  • feeling drowsy and not responding to you,or being difficult to wake
  • being floppy and having no energy, or being stiff with jerky movements
  • being irritable when picked up
  • a high-pitched moaning cry
  • grunting
  • rapid or unusual patterns of breathing
  • a fever
  • cold hands and/or feet
  • skin that is pale, blotchy or turning blue
  • shivering
  • spots or a rash that does not fade under pressure – do the ‘glass test’ by pressing a clear glass against the rash to see if it fades and loses colour – if it doesn’t change, get medical help straight away
  • convulsions/seizures
  • a bulging fontanelle (the soft patch on the top of the newborn baby’s head)
  • a stiff neck
  • disliking bright lights.

Some of the symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of flu, so, if you’re in any doubt about your baby’s health, trust your instincts and get advice urgently by contacting your GP or calling NHS 24 free on 111.

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What are the main symptoms of meningitis in older children, adolescents and adults?

Symptoms in older children, adolescents and adults may include:

  • a stiff neck 
  • a very bad headache (this alone is not a reason to get medical help) 
  • lights hurting your eyes 
  • vomiting 
  • a fever 
  • feeling drowsy, less responsive or confused 
  • red or purple spots that don’t fade under pressure (see the glass test)

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What are the main symptoms of septicaemia in older children, adolescents and adults?

Symptoms in older children, adolescents and adults may include:

  • feeling sleepy, less responsive or confused (a late sign in septicaemia) 
  • severe pains and aches in the arms, legs and joints
  • very cold hands and feet
  • shivering 
  • rapid breathing 
  • red or purple spots that don’t fade under pressure (do the glass test) 
  • vomiting 
  • fever
  • diarrhoea and stomach pain.

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Where can I get more information?

More information on the different meningococcal vaccines (MenB, Hib/MenC and MenACWY) is also available on this site. 

You can call the NHS inform helpline on 0800 22 44 88 (text phone 18001 0800 22 44 88). The helpline is open every day 8am to 10pm and provides an interpreting service.

For more information, advice and support about meningitis contact the Meningitis Research Foundation via their website or by telephone (080 8800 3344) or Meningitis Now (0808 80 10 388.) 

Last reviewed on 05 September 2016

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