Meningitis is the disease that parents’ fear most, and we all want to keep our children safe. So how do we protect our children from meningitis?
Vaccines are the only way to prevent serious and life-threatening infectious diseases like meningitis.
Meningitis is caused by many different organisms, but the most common are bacteria and viruses. In the UK all babies are offered vaccines from the age of 2 months, as part of the Childhood Immunisation Programme. Some of these vaccines protect against viral and bacterial meningitis, but there is still no routine immunisation for Meningococcal group B, the most common cause of bacterial meningitis and septicaemia (blood poisoning) in the UK.
Until there are vaccines to prevent all types of meningitis, it is vital to know the signs and symptoms to look for.
Babies and young children are most at risk, with around half of all cases occurring in the under 5s. Their immune systems are not fully developed so they cannot fight infection easily, which makes them vulnerable.
Babies and young children can’t tell you how they are feeling; you know them best, trust your instincts and don’t ignore the signs.
- Meningitis and septicaemia often happen together.
- Early symptoms can be similar to those of many childhood illnesses and can include:
- Muscle pain
- Fever with cold hands and feet
- A child with meningitis or septicaemia can get a lot worse very quickly. Keep checking them, even when they are sleeping.
Common signs and symptoms to look out for in babies and children:
Symptoms can appear in any order and some may not appear at all.
- Fever, can also have cold hands and feet
- Refusing food or vomiting
- Drowsy, difficult to wake or floppy and unresponsive
- Confusion or irritability
- Severe headache, muscle pain. In babies and young children, this can mean they are fretful and dislike being handled
- Rapid breathing or grunting
- Pale blotchy skin. Spots or rash (see the Glass Test)
- Unusual cry or moaning
- Tense or bulging fontanelle (soft spot) on top of babies head
- Stiff neck or a dislike bright lights
Septicaemia and ‘The Glass Test’
Some bacteria can cause meningitis and septicaemia. Children with septicaemia may develop a rash of tiny red ‘pin pricks’ which can develop into purple bruising.
THIS RASH DOES NOT FADE UNDER PRESSURE. DO THE GLASS TEST(show image if possible)
- Press the side of a clear drinking glass firmly against the skin
- Spots/rash may fade at first, keep checking
- Fever with spots/rash that do not fade under pressure is a medical emergency
- Do wait for a rash. If your child is ill and getting worse, get medical help immediately.
- On dark skin, the spots/rash can be more difficult to see. Do not wait for the rash. Be aware of all the signs and symptoms
Trust your instincts – get medical help immediately
If you think your child could have meningitis or septicaemia, you can:
Call NHS 111/NHS 24 (Scotland) or your GP
In an emergency you can:
- Dial 999 for an ambulance
- Go to your nearest accident and emergency department
Describe the symptoms and say you think it could be meningitis or septicaemia.
Early diagnosis can be difficult. If you’ve seen a medical professional, but your child is getting worse or you are still concerned, get medical help again.
For symptoms information or to request a symptoms card call our helpline, available 24-hours a day, 0808 80 10 388. Alternatively you can log on to Meningitis Now and download the symptoms app