meningitis in children:
spotting the symptoms and trusting your instincts

Meningitis might sound like a scary thing to learn more about, but knowing the symptoms and acting quickly can do a world of good. And nobody knows your little one as well as you do, so you’re the best person to notice any unusual signs.

meningitis glass test demonstration

what is meningitis?

Meningitis is a bacterial or viral infection of the membranes that protect the brain and the spinal cord. It needs immediate treatment as it can lead to blood poisoning or cause damage to the brain or nervous system. Babies, children, teenagers and young adults are the most at risk of contracting meningitis, so it’s really important that parents can spot the symptoms. Vaccinations can offer some protection against meningitis, and these are offered to all babies as part of the NHS vaccination schedule.

when should i see the doctor?

The main symptoms of meningitis are as follows:

  • a high temperature (38°C or above)
  • vomiting or diarrhoea
  • no appetite
  • blotchy rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is pressed on it - the tumbler test
  • pale or blue skin
  • turning away from bright lights
  • high-pitched cry when picked up
  • cold hands and feet
  • difficulty breathing, or more rapid breathing
  • unresponsive, sleepy and floppy – or their body may be stiff
  • confusion
  • fits or extreme shivering
  • headaches and a stiff neck

what to do if you spot the symptoms of meningitis

Get medical help immediately if you suspect meningitis – don’t wait for more symptoms to develop, as they might not all be present. Dial 999 for an ambulance or go to your nearest A&E department if there’s one nearby. The quicker your little one gets treatment the better. Never feel anxious or hesitant about calling the emergency services for your poorly child. No one who works in the medical profession will ever think badly of a parent who is following their instincts.

treatment for meningitis

In hospital, your child will be tested immediately for meningitis. If the test is positive, what happens next depends on whether it’s the bacterial or viral strain. Bacterial meningitis involves a hospital stay and treatment with antibiotics, intravenous fluids and oxygen. It can feel a bit overwhelming to see your little one hooked up to drips and masks, but rest assured that they're being given the best care. Viral meningitis will usually get better on its own within ten days, so is treated at home with painkillers, anti-sickness medicine and plenty of rest.

what happens after treatment?

Viral meningitis normally clears up quickly, and long-term problems are rare. The outlook is also good for bacterial meningitis if treatment was started immediately. However, if your little one experiences any complications you will receive plenty of help and support. The risk of meningitis spreading within your family is low, although you may all be prescribed antibiotics just in case.