The signs and symptoms of meningitis in children

Luke James
Medical Director Bupa Global and UK Insurance
09 April 2019

Meningitis is a word that crops up a lot in the parenting community. And quite rightly – bacterial meningitis can be life threating and is most common in babies and young children. If you’re a parent, it’s vital to know what the signs and symptoms are, and what the best course of action is if you’re concerned.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is a condition caused when the outer layers covering the spine and brain get inflamed. Babies and young children are at the highest risk of meningitis, which is usually caused by a virus or bacteria.

Viral meningitis is the most common cause, but bacterial meningitis is more serious, and can be life threatening. Bacterial meningitis is usually accompanied by blood poisoning (septicaemia). You may hear the term ‘meningococcal disease’ – this describes meningitis and septicaemia. These can occur on their own or more commonly, together.

Meningococcal disease is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. Meningitis B is the most common strain in the UK, but other strains include meningitis A, C, W and Y.

Symptoms of meningitis

It’s important to know what the symptoms of meningitis are, so that you can spot them early on. This isn’t always easy – different symptoms may be more prominent for different ages. There are also several symptoms that aren't specific to meningitis, so can easily be mistaken for less serious conditions. Finally, there are so many possible symptoms and it’s hard to know what combination they will appear in.

Common non-specific symptoms (which could be caused by another illness) include:

  • fever
  • vomiting
  • nausea
  • tiredness
  • irritability
  • looking ill
  • refusing food or drink
  • headache
  • aches and pains
  • difficulty breathing

Sometimes your child can develop chills, diarrhoea or a sore throat.

Symptoms that are much more specific to meningitis are:

  • a skin rash that doesn’t fade when pressed (non-blanching) – use a clear glass to test for this
  • a stiff neck or back
  • shock
  • pain in the legs
  • an unusual skin colour
  • bright light causing discomfort to the eyes
  • loss of consciousness
  • seizures (fits)
  • (in babies) a bulging of the ‘soft spot’ on the top of the head

If you’re worried about someone who is showing any of these symptoms, you should seek medical help immediately. Meningitis can progress to a dangerous stage very quickly. The best course of action is to call NHS 111. They can assess your child’s condition over the phone and make sure you get the right medical help straightaway.

Vaccinating against meningitis

All children under the age of one are vaccinated against meningococcal B disease. This is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis and septicaemia in children.

Like all vaccines, it works by introducing a small amount of the bacteria to the body so that it learns how to defend itself against the disease. It does this by using proteins called antibodies. Some people worry about potential side-effects of vaccinations, but this vaccine is safe and gives effective protection against meningococcal B disease.

Just after your child’s first birthday, they will be vaccinated against meningitis C – this is now a very rare cause of meningitis in the UK because of the vaccination programme.

If you want to learn more about meningitis and the different types, Meningitis Now and Meningitis Research Foundation have lots of reliable information to browse.

Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available to you and your loved ones when you need it.

Luke James
Dr Luke James
Medical Director Bupa Global and UK Insurance

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