Meningitis and septicaemia ‘more than just a rash’, charity warns

George and James Vincent

Meningitis and septicaemia are “more than just a rash”, a charity has warned, as a new poll suggests only one in 20 parents know all the symptoms.

The YouGov survey of 1,300 parents in the UK found that mothers were eight times more likely than fathers to know what to look out for when it comes to the deadly bugs.

More than three quarters of parents (78%) knew that meningitis, which is caused by bacteria infecting the lining surrounding the brain and spine, is life-threatening and can kill within 24 hours.

Most also knew that meningitis and septicaemia can cause a rash and many knew the classic meningitis sign of people disliking bright lights.

However, symptoms more typically associated with septicaemia had the lowest levels of awareness, with cold hands and feet/shivering recognised by less than a third (30%) of parents, followed by breathing fast or being breathlessness (33%) and pale and mottled skin (43%).

People had some awareness of other symptoms of meningitis, such as stiff neck and severe headache.

The poll, carried out for the Meningitis Research Foundation to mark World Meningitis Day, found twice as many mothers (69%) as fathers (33%) were able to recognise at least half of the symptoms of the diseases.

Some 15% of fathers knew none of the symptoms but only 4% of mothers had the same score.

Meningitis and septicaemia are closely connected diseases, caused by the same bacteria.

Symptoms can be hard to distinguish from other mild illnesses such as flu, particularly in the early stages of illness.

Those at greatest risk are children under five, followed by teens and young adults.

Claire Wright, head of evidence and policy at the Meningitis Research Foundation, said the easiest way to think of septicaemia is as blood poisoning caused by the same bacteria as meningitis.

She added: “Every day we support people who are coping with the life-changing impact of meningitis and septicaemia, from deafness, to limb loss, to epilepsy or long-term memory issues.

“Yet the bacteria that trigger these illnesses can be defeated in our lifetime through better vaccine development, availability and uptake, improved diagnostic tests and through knowing when to get medical help.

“It’s also important to remember meningitis and septicaemia are more than just a rash, which doesn’t always appear.

“This poll tells us that not enough parents are aware of some of the other signs to look out for.

“We want to change that, so more lives can be saved.”

James Vincent, 41, from Barrowash, in Derbyshire, had little knowledge of meningitis until his son George contracted bacterial meningitis, aged three, after suffering with symptoms including a fever, loss of appetite and lethargy in December 2021.

Mr Vincent said: “I knew nothing about meningitis.

“I knew something about a rash and a glass, but George didn’t have those symptoms and there are so many more, but often people aren’t aware of them.

“That needs to change.”

George suffered hearing loss due to meningitis and has been on a long journey of recovery.