Babies and children * 50+ health

Bacterial meningitis

How to spot bacterial meningitis A simple test can tell you if a rash is dangerous

Meningitis is an infection of the membranes covering the brain.

The infection is most often caused by a bacterium or a virus. While viral meningitis is rarely life threatening, bacterial meningitis is a serious medical condition which can be fatal.

Although there are vaccines against some types of bacterial meningitis, none of them protect against meningococcal group B disease, the most common cause of meningitis in the UK.

The same bacteria also cause blood poisoning or septicaemia, which is also life-threatening.

Bacterial meningitis and septicaemia affects more than 3,000 people each year in the UK. It can affect anyone, but is most common in children under the age of five and babies under the age of one. It is also common in teenagers aged between 15 and 19.

At the start of Meningitis Awareness Week, here is a reminder of the symptoms of bacterial meningitis.


Bacterial meningitis should be treated as a medical emergency.

The symptoms usually begin suddenly and get worse quickly.

There are some early warning signs that you may notice before other symptoms appear:

Early warning signs

  • Pain in the muscles, joints or limbs
  • Unusually cold hands and feet, or shivering pale or blotchy skin and blue lips
  • A high temperature and any of the above symptoms should be taken very seriously
  • If this is the case, call 999 immediately

Early symptoms

The early symptoms of bacterial meningitis are similar to those of many other conditions. It can often be confused with flu. They include:

  • A severe headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Feeling generally unwell

As the condition gets worse it may cause:

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Seizures or fits
  • Being unable to tolerate bright lights (less common in young children)
  • A stiff neck (less common in young children)
  • A rapid breathing rate
  • A blotchy purple/red rash – though this may not always be present

If the rash is present, you should carry out the 'Tumbler Test'

Tumbler Test

Press the side of a glass firmly against the red rash.

If you can see the rash through the glass, the person has septicaemia (blood poisoning)

Seek help immediately, either at your local A&E, or by calling 999.

Symptoms in babies and young children

The symptoms of bacterial meningitis are different in babies and young children. These can include:

  • Becoming floppy and unresponsive, or stiff with jerky movements
  • Becoming irritable and not wanting to be held
  • Unusual crying
  • Vomiting and refusing feeds
  • Pale and blotchy skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Staring expression
  • Very sleepy with a reluctance to wake up
  • Some babies will develop a swelling in the soft part of their head (fontanelle).

Seek medical help

If you notice any of the symptoms of meningitis, particularly in a young child, seek medical help immediately by going to your local A&E or calling 999.

Do not wait for a purple or red rash to appear because not everyone gets it.

More information

  • NHS Direct on 0845 4647
  • Meningitis Research Foundation on 080 8800 3344 (a 24-hour freephone helpline) -Meningitis Trust on 0800 028 18 28 (a 24-hour freephone helpline)

This article was published on Fri 16 September 2011

Image © Václav Hroch -

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