First Aid Boxes

Signs and Symptoms of Meningitislogo

Meningitis is extremely rare, however if you are worried seek advice from your doctor.

Bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is very serious. In babies and young children, death can occur in a matter of hours if left untreated. In some cases, the acute illness subsides into a chronic state, which may lead to serious brain damage. If you suspect meningitis you must seek urgent medical assistance.

Symptoms may not be easy to identify because initially they can be similar to symptoms of flu. Any of the symptoms below may appear in any order over 1-2 days, or in a matter of hours. It is also possible that there may be additional symptoms.

Symptoms in adults and older children may include:

  •  a constant generalised headache
  • confusion
  • a high temperature, although hands and feet may be cold
  • drowsiness
  • vomiting
  • stomach pain, sometimes with diarrhoea
  • rapid breathing
  • neck stiffness – moving the chin to the chest will be painful at the back of the neck
  • a rash of red or purple spots or bruises (or darker than normal, in dark skins) that does not fade when you press a glass tumbler or finger against it – this may not be present in the early stages
  • joint or muscle pain
  • sensitivity to bright lights, daylight or even the television.

Symptoms in babies and infants may include:

  • high temperature, fever (possibly with cold hands and feet)
  • vomiting and refusing feeds
  • high pitched moaning or whimpering cry
  • blank staring expression
  • pale itchy complexion
  • floppiness
  • dislike of being handled
  • fretful
  • neck retraction with arching of back
  • convulsions
  • lethargic and difficult to wake, and
  • tense or bulging fontanelle (soft spot on head)

A recent study by The Meningitis Research Foundation has found that the key early warning signs of meningitis in children (under 17 years old) often include:

  • cold hands and feet
  • leg pains, and
  • abnormal skin colour.

These are symptoms of blood poisoning (septicaemia) that is often associated with meningitis. This is a medical emergency and needs urgent treatment with antibiotics. These symptoms can appear hours before such symptoms as sensitivity to bright light and a rash.

If you suspect your child has meningitis do not wait for a rash to appear but seek medial advice immediately.

If there is a rash, the glass (tumbler) test can be used to determine if it might indicate septicaemia (blood poisoning). Press the side of a clear drinking glass onto the rash or bruises and check that they fade. If they do not fade, you should suspect septicaemia. In a small number of cases the rash may fade at first but may later change into one that does not fade.

Viral meningitis

Viral meningitis is a less severe illness but, very rarely, can progress from headache, fever and drowsiness, to deep coma.

In severe cases there may be weakness of the muscles, paralysis, speech disturbances, double vision or partial loss of the field of vision, and epileptic fits. Most people make a full recovery within one to two weeks. Occasionally there maybe long term problems such as hearing or memory impairment.


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