Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.

This infection causes these membranes (the meninges) to become inflamed, which in some cases can damage the nerves and brain.

Signs and symptoms of meningitis

Anyone can get meningitis, but babies and young children under five years of age are most at risk. A baby or young child with meningitis may:

  • have a high fever, with cold hands and feet
  • vomit and refuse to feed
  • feel agitated and not want to be picked up
  • become drowsy, floppy and unresponsive
  • grunt or breathe rapidly
  • have an unusual high-pitched or moaning cry
  • have pale, blotchy skin, and a red rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over it
  • have a tense, bulging soft spot on their head (fontanelle)
  • have a stiff neck and dislike bright lights
  • have convulsions or seizures

The above symptoms can appear in any order, and some may not appear at all.

Don't wait for a rash to develop. If your child is unwell and getting worse, seek medical help immediately.

In older children, teenagers and adults, the symptoms of meningitis can include:

  • a fever, with cold hands and feet
  • vomiting
  • drowsiness and difficulty waking up
  • confusion and irritability
  • severe muscle pain
  • pale, blotchy skin, and a distinctive rash (although not everyone will have this)
  • a severe headache
  • stiff neck
  • sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • convulsion or seizures

Again, these symptoms can appear in any order, and not everyone will get all of them.
Don't wait for a rash to develop. Seek immediate medical help if someone is unwell and displays the symptoms of meningitis.

The Glass Test

If you press the side of a clear glass firmly against the skin and the rash doesn't fade, it's a sign of meningococcal septicaemia.
A person with septicaemia may have a rash of tiny "pin pricks" that later develops into purple bruising.
A fever with a rash that doesn't fade under pressure is a medical emergency, and you should seek immediate medical help.

Types of meningitis

There are two types of meningitis. They are:

  • bacterial meningitis – caused by bacteria such as Neisseria meningitidis or Streptococcus pneumoniae and through close contact
  • viral meningitis – caused by viruses that can be spread through coughing, sneezing and poor hygiene
Bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is very serious and should be treated as a medical emergency. If the bacterial infection is left untreated, it can cause severe brain damage and infect the blood (septicaemia).

It's essential to know the signs and symptoms, and to get medical help if you're worried.

Bacterial meningitis most commonly affects children under five years of age, particularly babies under the age of one. It's also common among teenagers aged 15 to 19.

Viral meningitis

Viral meningitis is the most common, and less serious, type of meningitis. It's difficult to estimate the number of viral meningitis cases, because symptoms are often so mild that they're mistaken for flu.

Viral meningitis is most common in children and more widespread during the summer.

Diagnosing meningitis

Diagnosing meningitis can be difficult because it often comes on quickly and can be easily mistaken for flu, as many of the symptoms are the same.

However, it's very important to seek immediate medical help if you notice any of the symptoms of meningitis, particularly in a young child.

Don't wait for a purple rash to appear, because not everyone with meningitis gets one.

If meningitis is suspected, treatment will usually be started before the diagnosis is confirmed. This is because some of the tests can take several hours to complete, and it could be dangerous to delay treatment.

The doctors will carry out a physical examination to look for signs of meningitis (see above) or signs of septicaemia, such as a rash. They will also carry out a number of other tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Treating meningitis

Viral meningitis usually gets better within a couple of weeks, with plenty of rest, painkillers for the headache and anti-sickness medication for the vomiting.

Bacterial meningitis is treated with intravenous antibiotics (delivered through a vein in the arm). Admission to hospital will be needed, with severe cases treated in intensive care, so the body's vital functions can be monitored and supported.

If antibiotics don't work, you will need to be in hospital for a week or less. If the infection is more severe, you may need to stay in for longer.


The best way to prevent meningitis is by ensuring vaccinations are up-to-date. Children in the UK should receive the available vaccines as part of the childhood vaccination programme.