Does my child have meningitis?

There are two types of meningitis:

  • Bacterial - a serious infection that requires urgent treatment with antibiotics. Can result in long term complications.
  • Viral - generally a less serious infection which doesn't often result in long term complications. Does not need treatment with antibiotics.

Unfortunately, without tests, it can be extremely difficult to distinguish the two.

However, following the introduction over the past few years of routine vaccinations for babies against infections such a meningococcus, pneumococcus and haemophilus, the rates of bacterial meningitis in children have more than halved. As a result, the number of children affected each year by bacterial meningitis in the UK is now less than 1 in 10,000.

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What should you do?

  • Only a tiny proportion of children who have a fever and are miserable have bacterial meningitis. Look closely at the symptoms in the red box. If your child has these, they need to see a doctor urgently. If not :
  • To make your child more comfortable, you may want to lower their temperature using paracetamol (calpol) and/or ibuprofen. However, remember that fever is a normal response that may help the body to fight infection and paracetamol/ibuprofen will not get rid of it entirely.
  • Avoid tepid sponging your child – it doesn’t actually reduce your child’s temperature and may cause your child to shiver.
  • Encourage them to drink plenty of fluids.

If a rash appears, do the glass test.


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When should you worry?

The symptoms of meningitis in babies and young children include:-

  • being drowsy (too sleepy to wake up) or irritable (unable to settle them with toys, TV, food or picking up). Children with fever are often sleepy and miserable but if they remain drowsy or irritable despite their fever coming down, they should see a doctor urgently.
  • a tense, bulging soft spot on their head (fontanelle) in babies.
  • a stiff neck and disliking bright lights (often absent in babies).
  • a rash that doesn’t fade under pressure using the glass test (may be absent).
  • having a fit / seizure (occasionally).

It is rare to have meningitis in the absence of fever.

In addition, your child should see a doctor if they...

  • have breathing problems, such as rapid breathing, shortness of breath or laboured breathing (drawing in of muscles below the lower ribs when they breath in, or blue lips).
  • have severe arm or leg pain (for no obvious reason).
  • are pale and floppy.
  • are showing signs of dehydration (sunken eyes, passing very little urine, becoming lethargic or difficult to wake, sunken soft spot on head in children less than a year of age).
  • are less than 3 months of age and have a fever of more than 38°C.
  • have a fever lasts for more than 5 days.

In older children and teenagers, the symptoms of meningitis include:-

  • a severe headache.
  • a stiff neck.
  • sensitivity to light (photophobia).
  • being confused, agitated or drowsy.

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Where should you seek help?

Find urgent care services near you

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