What are the symptoms of meningitis in children?

Meningitis can be difficult to identify – it is especially hard to spot in children, because the symptoms can be easily mistaken for those of other illnesses or infections. The symptoms of meningitis can also be present alongside symptoms of other illnesses, such as the flu, if that illness has caused or lead to meningitis.

The tell-tale symptoms of meningitis in children include:

  • Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • Red spots and rash (septicaemia)
  • Severe headache
  • Neck stiffness
  • Tiredness (fatigue)
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • High temperature (fever)
  • Loss of appetite. Sometimes children may refuse to eat altogether
  • Feeling sick (nausea), sometimes with vomiting
  • Seizures

The tumbler test – the most recognisable symptom of meningitis is the red splotchy rash, that doesn’t fade when a glass is pressed against it (this is called the tumbler test). This red rash is actually a symptom of blood poisoning, known as septicaemia, which is a sign that a child may have bacterial meningitis. If your child has a rash that doesn’t fade, go to the emergency department or call 999 immediately as it could mean that meningitis has progressed to a stage that can cause serious complications, or death.

Don’t rely on the tumbler test as a sign of meningitis – the red rash is only one sign of bacterial meningitis, and the rash sometimes doesn’t appear. Because the rash is a late sign and as meningitis is commonly caused by viral infections, which wouldn’t usually have this rash associated with them, look out for the all the key symptoms above.

Why is meningitis common in children?

Children do not have fully developed immune systems – young children are more prone to getting meningitis and getting sick in general because their immune systems have not yet developed the antibodies needed to properly fight off infections.

Children spend more time in close contact with others – viral and bacterial infections spread easily during prolonged close contact, especially amongst young children with weaker immune systems. Children are also constantly exposed to illnesses carried by other children in the classroom and playground, meaning that it is more likely that a child will get infected than an adult.

What are the most common causes of meningitis in children?

Meningitis is most commonly caused by viral infections – in the UK, there are thousands of cases of viral meningitis every year, though most are not severe enough to require treatment in hospital.

Viral meningitis in children can be caused by:

  • Enteroviruses
  • Herpes viruses, including chickenpox
  • The flu
  • Mumps
  • Measles

Bacterial meningitis is the second most common type – meningitis caused by bacterial infections is rarer than viral meningitis, but causes more severe symptoms. Bacterial meningitis is also more likely to lead to complications, after-effects, and fatalities than viral meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis in children can be  caused by:

  • Meningococci
  • Pneumococci (in particular streptococcus pneumoniae)
  • “Hib” (haemophilus influenzae)
  • “GBS” - Group B Streptococcus
  • E.Coli
  • Listeria

Meningococcal bacteria are usually harmless – it is estimated that around 10% of the population carry bacteria that can cause meningitis. They live in the back of the throat and nose without causing any health issues. However, when these bacteria infect the meninges – the tissue surrounding the spinal cord and brain – they can cause inflammation that leads to meningitis.

There are other, rare forms of meningitis – meningitis may also be caused by fungal infections, parasitic infections, and sometimes may be caused by non-infectious triggers. If you'd like more information on all five types of meningitis, visit our page on the different types of meningitis


What are the long-term effects of meningitis in children?

Meningitis can cause serious long-term health issues – meningitis, especially in children, is a condition that can cause serious long term health complications. In some cases – more commonly in bacterial meningitis – it can be fatal. As meningitis is an inflammation of the brain and spinal column, the after-effects of meningitis are typically as a result of mild to severe brain damage.

After-effects of meningitis can include:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Behavioural changes
  • Loss of coordination and balance
  • Recurring headaches or migraines
  • Hearing problems, including partial to total deafness
  • Sight problems, including partial to total blindness
  • Epilepsy
  • Speech problems

Bacterial meningitis can result in septicaemia – septicaemia can occur when bacteria, such as the bacteria that causes meningitis, infects the bloodstream causing the body to mount a systemic response. Septicaemia is potentially life-threatening on its own, and can also cause a number of after-effects in survivors.

After-effects of septicaemia can include:

  • Loss of limb, due to amputation
  • Permanent scarring of skin
  • Joint stiffness/arthritis
  • Kidney damage
  • Lung damage

How is meningitis in children treated?

If you suspect meningitis, take your child to A&E – meningitis is incredibly dangerous, and can cause life-altering after-effects, or death, if not treated in time. If you suspect your child is displaying symptoms of meningitis, call 999 or take them to a hospital as soon as possible so they can be assessed by a doctor. With meningitis, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Antibacterial medication – bacterial meningitis is especially life-threatening, so initial treatment includes a course of antibiotics injected straight into the veins, just in case. Once the type and cause of meningitis have been diagnosed, antibiotic treatment will stop if the infection is confirmed to not be bacterial meningitis.

Children can recover from viral meningitis at home – once diagnosed, viral meningitis is usually mild and will go away on its own in 7 to 10 days. It is recommended that those with viral meningitis get plenty of rest, drink lots of water, and take painkillers if necessary.

Bacterial meningitis requires treatment at hospital – if the cause of meningitis is confirmed to be as a result of a bacterial infection, your child will be kept in hospital for emergency treatment. In hospital treatment for bacterial meningitis typically takes a few days, but in more serious causes your child may be required to stay in hospital for several weeks.

Treatment for bacterial meningitis involves an intravenous course of antibiotics, which may be given alongside corticosteroid injections that help to reduce inflammation. Fluids are also given intravenously to prevent the child from getting dehydrated, as bacterial meningitis can cause severe fever and loss of fluid, and an oxygen mask may be required too. Healthcare staff would also be monitoring the child closely during treatment.

How is meningitis in children diagnosed?

Lumbar puncture – a needle is inserted into the lower back, between the bones in the spine, to take a  small sample of fluid. This fluid (cerebrospinal fluid) is then analysed to determine whether or not meningitis is present and, if it is meningitis, what type of infection is causing it. It can take a few hours for the laboratory to process the sample and provide results, so you will need to remain in hospital care until the diagnosis is complete.

Blood tests – doctors may also take a blood sample to be analysed, which can help to confirm  the diagnosis, determine the type of meningitis, and to try and identify any bacteria that could be causing the infection.

CT scan – CT scans use x-rays to create a digital image of the brain, which can be used to detect any issues such as any swelling or bleeding.

How do I protect my child against meningitis?

Vaccinations are the most effective form of protection – making sure that your child is up to date with their vaccines is the best way to protect them against meningitis. A number of vaccinations against meningitis are offered routinely by the NHS, and are also available with Superdrug Health Clinics. You can find out more about what specific vaccinations can protect your child against meningitis here.

Practice good hygiene around children – viruses and bacteria can spread to children very easily if precautions are not taken, which can result in them becoming infected. You can reduce a child’s exposure to viruses and bacteria if you:

  • Don’t share eating utensils with a child, as you could be carrying bacteria or viruses
  • Keep surfaces clean, as viruses and bacteria can contaminate them. For example, the flu virus can survive on surfaces for 24 hours
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water especially before feeding younger children

Boost their immune system – children are more susceptible to illness because their immune systems haven’t developed fully yet. Keeping them healthy means that they will be able to fight off infections faster, reducing the likelihood that they will develop into meningitis. Here are a few ways to help keep their immune system fighting fit:

  • Give them a well balanced diet, with lots of fruit and veg
  • Make sure they get enough sleep, as rest is one of the best ways to let the body repair itself
  • Exercise, which includes outdoor playtime
  • Avoid smoking around children, as even secondhand smoke can weaken their immune system