Meningitis should be treated as a medical emergency because bacterial meningitis can lead to septicaemia, which can be fatal.
Bacterial meningitis is the more serious form of the condition, with symptoms usually beginning very suddenly before rapidly getting worse.
Below is some information on the symptoms to look out for and what to do if you think you or somebody you know is experiencing symptoms.
Early warning signs:
- pain in the muscles, joints or limbs, such as in the legs or hands
- unusually cold hands and feet, or shivering
- pale or blotchy skin and blue lips
If you have any of these symptoms, as well as a high temperature, you should take this very seriously and phone 999 immediately to request an ambulance.
- a severe headache
- nausea (feeling sick)
- feeling generally unwell
- a fever (where your body temperature is unusually high- in both adults and children this is taken to be a temperature of 38 degrees celsius or 100.4 degrees fahrenheit)
- your face is hot to the touch
- you look red or flushed
As the condition progresses, symptoms get worse.
- seizures or fits
- being unable to tolerate bright lights (photophobia) – this is less common in young children
- a stiff neck – also less common in young children
- a rapid breathing rate
- a blotchy red rash that does not fade or change colour when you place a glass against it (a rash is not always present)
In babies and young children, the symptoms of bacterial meningitis are different, and may 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
- a staring expression
- very sleepy and reluctant to wake up
Some babies will also develop a swelling in the soft part of their head.
Most people with viral meningitis will experience flu-like symptoms.
- generally not feeling very well
In more severe cases of viral meningitis, symptoms include:
- neck stiffness
- muscle or joint pain
- nausea (feeling sick)
- sensitivity to light
Unlike bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis does not usually lead to septicaemia.
Meningitis rash- the glass test
A rash that does not fade under pressure is a sign of meningococcal septicaemia and is usually described as the meningitis rash.
If somebody is showing other signs of meningitis, the advice is not to wait for the rash as it can appear very late on, or not at all.
A fever with spots or a rash that does not fade under pressure should be treated as a medical emergency.
How to do the test:
- Press a clear glass (or plastic) tumbler over the spots or rash
- If the spots or rash do not fade under the glass, this could indicate meningococcal septicaemia. Get medical help immediately
- If the spots fade when the glass is rolled over them, the rash may not be serious, but keep checking, it can develop into a rash that does not fade
If you are at all worried about meningitis, the advice is to get help as soon as possible, as the earlier the detection, the higher the chances of survival.
- Call emergency services on 999 immediately
- Describe the symptoms carefully and say that you think it could be meningitis or septicaemia.
For more information on the meningitis, including causes, diagnosis and treatment, visit the Meningitis Trust website.
To find out more about meningitis research and how you can help, visit the Meningitis Research website.