Meningitis can be fatal
Meningitis should be treated as a medical emergency because bacterial meningitis can lead to septicaemia (blood poisoning), which can be fatal.
Bacterial meningitis is the more serious form of the condition. The symptoms usually begin suddenly and rapidly get worse. If you suspect a case of bacterial meningitis, you should phone 999 immediately to request an ambulance.
There are some early warning signs you may notice before the other symptoms appear.
Early warning signs
Bacterial meningitis has a number of early warning signs that usually occur before the other symptoms. These are:
- 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
The presence of a high temperature (fever) with any of the above symptoms should be taken very seriously. Phone 999 immediately to request an ambulance.
The early symptoms of bacterial meningitis are similar to those of many other conditions, and include:
- a severe headache
- nausea (feeling sick)
- vomiting (being sick)
- feeling generally unwell
A fever is where you have a body temperature that is higher than usual. In general, in both adults and children this is taken to be a temperature of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above.
Other signs of fever include:
- your face is hot to the touch
- you look red or flushed
As the condition gets worse it may cause:
- 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)
Babies and young children
The symptoms of bacterial meningitis are different in babies and young children. Possible symptoms 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 develop a swelling in the soft part of their head (fontanelle).