Although meningitis can affect people of any age, it most commonly affects babies, children, and young adults. The elderly and people with a weakened immune system are also at a higher risk of developing meningitis.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis means there is inflammation of the membrane that envelops and protects the brain and the spinal cord. It is mainly caused by an infection with one of various different types of microorganisms, most commonly bacteria and viruses. The body can normally fight off viral meningitis by itself without complications. Bacterial meningitis, however, can be a serious medical emergency. One in ten cases of bacterial meningitis is fatal; it can also leave serious, long term complications.

It is important, therefore, to know the symptoms of meningitis so that you can quickly spot if someone is seriously ill and get them prompt medical attention. Read on to find out how you can recognise the symptoms of meningitis.

How can I recognise meningitis in my baby or child?

Some symptoms of meningitis may show up differently in babies compared to in adults. See a doctor immediately if you suspect meningitis in your child. These are some common symptoms of meningitis to look out for:

  • Refusing to feed
  • Agitation, not wanting to be picked up, floppiness, unresponsiveness, or stiff body
  • A bulging fontanelle (a swelling of the soft spot on the baby’s head)
  • An unusually high-pitched cry
  • A fever (high temperature) of 38C and above
  • Seizures (fits)
  • A meningitis rash

What does meningitis rash look like?

The meningitis rash looks like red pinpricks at first. It quickly spreads all over the body and causes red or purple raised marks. These are harder to see on dark skin compared to on light skin; you may need to check paler areas on the body such as the palms of the hand and the soles of the feet.

The glass test

To identify a non-meningitis rash, press a glass firmly over a rash. A non-meningitis rash will fade whereas a meningitis rash will not.

The meningitis rash is a sign of septicaemia (blood poisoning) and requires urgent medical attention. Immediately call 999 or go to your nearest Accident & Emergency department if you suspect a meningitis rash.

It is important to note that the meningitis rash does not appear in many cases of meningitis. A person may require medical attention even if they are not showing signs of a meningitis rash. It is better to trust your instincts; do not wait for a rash to appear to seek medical attention.

How can I recognise meningitis in adults?

It is important to be able to recognise the symptoms of meningitis so that it can be identified and treated quickly. These are some of the common symptoms of meningitis to look out for:

  • A fever (high temperature) of 38C or above
  • Nausea (feeling sick), vomiting (being sick)
  • A headache, stiff neck, and photophobia (dislike of bright lights)
  • Irritability, lack of energy, drowsiness, confusion
  • Aching muscles and joints
  • Seizures (fits)
  • A meningitis rash

These symptoms can come in any order; some may not appear at all.

What to do if I suspect meningitis

If you are in doubt whether or not a person needs medical attention, call NHS 111 or make an appointment with your local GP. If you think that a person is seriously ill, call 999 or go to your nearest Accident & Emergency department.

What are the long-term effects of meningitis?

Most people fully recover after a meningitis infection, but some develop long-term complications that can be life changing. The most common complications of meningitis are:

  • Epilepsy (recurrent seizures)
  • Hearing or vision loss which may be partial or total
  • Problems with memory, concentration, coordination, movement, balance, behaviour, and new learning difficulties
  • Amputation of limbs

There are many organisations that are able to support a person who has developed long-term complications as a result of meningitis. For instance, cochlear implants and prosthetic limbs are available to help those affected with complications to adjust; counselling and psychological support may also be offered for the trauma caused by the effects of a meningitis infection.

How is meningitis transmitted?

Many people carry the meningitis bacteria in their nose or throat but are unaffected by the illness themselves. These microorganisms can be spread to other people by coughing, sneezing, kissing, or sharing toothbrushes. When the microorganisms is passed on to them, they may then develop meningitis. It is possible for a person who has meningitis themselves to spread the infection to other people, but this is rare.

Getting vaccinated

Because meningitis can be caused by various microorganisms, there are a few different types of vaccines available to guard against an infection. Children should receive most of these on the NHS, but there are other groups of vulnerable people that may require vaccination. For instance, young adults coming to university for the first time are often advised to get vaccinated.

The table below summarises some of the vaccinations that are available against meningitis:


Meningitis B


How it works


Who is normally offered them?

Meningitis B

Guards against meningococcal group B bacteria, which often causes meningitis in young children


First dose: babies aged 8 weeks old
Second dose: babies aged 16 weeks old
Booster: babies aged one year old

Meningitis C

Guards against meningococcal group C bacteria, which causes meningitis


Babies aged one year old

Meningitis ACWY

Guards against meningococcal groups A,C, W, and Y, which causes meningitis


Teenagers, sixth form students, and students going to university for the first time

5-in-1 vaccine

Guards against 5 different infections including Haemophilus influenzae tybe b (Hib), which causes meningitis


First dose: babies aged 8 weeks old
Second dose: babies aged 12 weeks old
Third dose: babies aged 16 weeks old

Pneumococcal vaccine

Guards against the pneumococcal bacteria which causes a range of different infections, including meningitis



First dose: babies aged 12 weeks old
Second dose: babies aged 16 years old
Third dose: babies aged one year old

MMR vaccine

Guards against measles, mumps, and rubella. Meningitis is a possible complication of these infections


First dose: babies aged one year old
Second dose: babies aged three years and four months old


Sources:

van Ettekoven, C.N., van de Beek, D. & Brouwer, M.C., 2017. Update on community-acquired bacterial meningitis: guidance and challenges. Clinical Microbiology and Infection. Available at: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1198743X17302306 [Accessed July 21, 2017].

https://www.meningitisnow.org/meningitis-explained/ [accessed 21/07/2017]