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The meningitis and sepsis warning signs everyone should know

Bacterial meningitis and septicaemia (or sepsis) are serious, life-threatening illnesses and everyone should know the warning signs. We asked Linda Glennie, director of research at Meningitis Research Foundation what you need to know in order to best protect yourself and your family against the diseases.

While it's true that bacterial meningitis and sepsis have become less common over the last few decades, there are still nearly 10 cases every day in the UK, which can have devastating outcomes.

Three-year-old Hector Kirkham, from Lancaster, was taken to hospital on 27 March 2018 after contracting meningitis and sepsis, but died later that day. His tragic story reached national news, as his mother and father urged all parents to be aware of symptoms of the diseases.

They said: "Hector was perfect in every way, our absolute world, our sunshine, our very best friend. Hector became very poorly very fast from contracting meningococcal septicaemia.

"Hector's symptoms of sickness and a temperature only presented 12 hours before we sadly lost the love of our lives. We urge all parents to be vigilant and any signs or symptoms that point towards meningitis being a possibility please, please seek urgent medical advice - don't delay."

What is meningitis?

Both meningitis and septicaemia can kill in hours, and leave some survivors with life-altering after effects, which may be as serious as brain damage, amputations, loss of vision, and hearing loss. A full recovery is more likely the earlier someone seeks medical help, so it's vital everyone knows the warning signs.

Glennie explains: "Meningitis is the swelling of the lining around the brain and spinal cord called the meninges. In the UK, it is mostly caused by certain kinds of bacteria entering the body. Septicaemia is blood poisoning caused by the same bacteria that cause meningitis."

She points out that babies, children aged less than five years and teenagers are the age groups most at risk. But it's important to remember that anyone can be affected at any time.

"Newborn babies are at the highest risk of all. Elderly people are also more at risk of some kinds of meningitis and septicaemia," she reveals.

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The symptoms to look out for

Common symptoms in older children and adults include fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell, explains Glennie. And while most people will associate meningitis with a rash, other symptoms might come on earlier.

"Limb pain, pale skin and cold hands and feet often appear earlier than the more well-known symptoms of rash, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights and confusion."

But if a rash has appeared, Glennie recommends the well-known tumbler test.

"Press a clear glass tumbler firmly against the rash. If you can see the marks clearly through the glass seek urgent medical help. If someone has had a rash for several days, it is unlikely to be due to meningitis/septicaemia - you are looking for a new rash or spots."

However, she stressed that if someone is already ill and you are worried about them, don't wait for a rash to appear.

Other symptoms to look out for in young children and babies are:

  • Unusual grunting sounds.

  • Tense or bulging soft spot on their head.

  • Refusing to feed.

  • Irritable when picked up, with a high-pitched or moaning cry.

  • A stiff body with jerky movements, or else floppy and lifeless.

  • Fever (but this is often absent in babies less than three months of age.)

How to protect yourself and your family

You can protect yourself against some types of meningitis, Glennie explains. She encourages everyone to take up the offer of the vaccinations that are included in the routine immunisation schedule on the NHS.

"There are vaccines available that protect against some of the most common causes of meningitis and septicaemia. These vaccines have successfully reduced the number of cases throughout the world," she reveals.

Such immunisations include: meningitis B, 6-in-1, pneumococcal, Hib/MenC and the MMR. The meningitis ACWY vaccine is available for teenagers, sixth formers and people going to university for the first time. More information can be found in our meningitis vaccine leaflet.

However, there are not yet vaccines available to prevent all causes of meningitis and septicaemia. That's why it's important to know the symptom of the illnesses. Early recognition and treatment provide the best chance of recovery.

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Trust your instincts

It's also really important to trust your instincts, says Glennie. Someone who has meningitis or septicaemia could become seriously ill very quickly. Get medical help immediately if you suspect either condition. In the UK, that means calling 999 for an ambulance, or going to your local accident and emergency department.

"Parents know their children best so check on them often. In the early stages it is very difficult to tell the difference between meningitis/septicaemia and a milder viral infection. Even a GP may not be able to identify the illness at first. If you have visited a health professional with a sick child and been sent home, do not hesitate to seek medical help again if your child's symptoms progress."

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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