Meningitis signs & symptoms

Meningitis is a serious illness that needs urgent medical attention. Spotting symptoms early could save a life

Meningitis is a life-threatening infection which people of any age can catch, even if it’s most common in babies, teenagers and young adults. It develops when the lining around the brain and the spinal cord becomes inflamed, and is mostly caused by bacteria or a virus.

Around 2.8 million people in the world every year get meningitis. Bacterial meningitis can lead to brain damage, deafness, blindness, epilepsy, blood poisoning (septicaemia), and even death. It’s thought that up to one in every 10 people who get bacterial meningitis will die.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of meningitis can help to save lives.

What are the key signs & symptoms of meningitis? 

Symptoms can appear in any order, and some may not appear at all. Early symptoms can include a headache, being sick, muscle pain, and a fever with cold hands and feet. Symptoms can also quickly get worse.

Meningitis and septicaemia often happen at the same time, but symptoms can vary with age so it’s important to make sure you know all the signs and symptoms.

Signs & symptoms in babies & toddlers

• A fever, with cold hands and feet

• Not wanting to eat and being sick (vomiting)

• Fretful and not wanting to be held 

• Drowsy, floppy and unresponsive

• Quick breathing or grunting

• Pale, blotchy skin and spots or a rash

• Unusual crying or moaning

• Tense, bulging soft spot on head (fontanelle)

• Stiff neck 

• Not liking bright lights

• Fits (seizures)

Signs & symptoms in children & adults

• A fever, with cold hands and feet

• Being sick (vomiting)

• Drowsy and difficult to wake 

• Confusion and irritability

• Very bad muscle pain

• Pale, blotchy skin and spots or a rash

• Very bad headache

• Stiff neck

• Not liking bright lights

• Fits (seizures)

What is the glass test? 

Meningitis can cause a rash. It usually starts as small, red pinpricks before spreading quickly and turning into red or purple blotches. If you press the side of a clear glass firmly against the skin and the rash does not fade, it could be a sign of blood poisoning (septicaemia) caused by meningitis. 

A rash can be hard to see on people with dark skin. Good areas to check for spots are the palms of hands, soles of the feet, the tummy area, inside eyelids or on the roof of the mouth.

If you, or your child, develop a rash that does not fade under pressure, it’s a medical emergency and you should get help straight away. Not all people will get a rash, so don’t wait for one to show.

Vaccinations can help protect against meningitis

Worrying about meningitis is normal, especially if you have children. While no vaccine is 100 percent effective, getting vaccinated against the main strains of meningitis is the best way to help prevention. Vaccinations can also help to offer peace of mind – especially in times of ‘outbreaks’.

Vaccinations against Meningitis B (MenB) are really important. MenB is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in the UK. It’s thought to be responsible for 90 percent of meningococcal infections. While the NHS now vaccinates children against MenB, it only started doing so in September 2015 for babies born on or after 1 July 2015. Those who haven’t been vaccinated, particularly children and young adults, may benefit from having the vaccination privately.

Boots provide the Meningitis B Vaccination Service in over 300 pharmacies (subject to stock and pharmacist availability and eligibility criteria. Charges apply). If you’re unsure whether you or your child have had the vaccination, please see your GP.

Children should receive most of the vaccinations against the most common forms of meningitis through the NHS vaccination programme. This would include the Men ACWY and the Men C (Hib/MenC) vaccinations. The NHS Men ACWY vaccination is offered to teenagers, along with a ‘catch up’ programme for those under 25 – but Men B is not included.

If you’re not sure whether you or your child’s vaccinations are up-to-date, speak to your GP.

If you’re not sure whether you or your child’s vaccinations are up-to-date, speak to your GP.

The Boots MenB Vaccination Service helps to protect adults and children aged 2 and above.