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Meningitis and septicaemia

Meningitis is caused by a viral or bacterial infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.

Septicaemia is the blood poisoning form of the disease caused by the same bacteria that cause meningitis.

Meningitis and septicaemia are devastating diseases that can kill in hours so if you suspect your child is ill then get medical help immediately.

Symptoms of meningitis: 

  • Severe headache

  • Stiff neck (unusual in young children)

  • Dislike of bright lights (unusual in young children)

  • Fever/vomiting

  • Drowsy and less responsive/vacant

  • Rash

  • Seizures (fits) may also be seen.

Symptoms of septicaemia

This form of the illness often starts with non-specific flu-like symptoms:

  • Rash

  • Fever/vomiting

  • Cold hands and feet/shivering

  • Rapid or unusual breathing

  • Joint/muscle pain

  • Abdominal pain (sometimes with diarrhoea)

  • Drowsy and less responsive/vacant.

Other symptoms in babies include: tense or bulging fontanelle (soft spot); blotchy skin, getting paler or turning blue; refusing to feed; be irritable when picked up, with a high pitched or moaning cry; a stiff body with jerky movements or else floppy and lifeless.

Symptoms can appear in any order, not everyone gets all the symptoms and septicaemia can occur with or without meningitis.

The Tumbler Test : If a glass tumbler is pressed firmly against a septicaemic rash, the marks will not fade. You will be able to see the rash through the glass. If this happens seek medical help immediately. It is harder to see on dark skin, so check paler areas.

So trust your instincts. You know your baby and can tell when he's ill.


We are indebted to Health Promotion England for their help in compiling this section.