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The symptoms of meningitis usually appear suddenly. Common symptoms include a high fever, headache, vomiting, a stiff neck, and dislike of bright lights. Children can also become drowsy or unresponsive, and sometimes they may experience fits or seizures.
Some children will develop a blotchy red/purple rash that doesn't go away when you press a glass against it, but this doesn't always appear. It can be harder to spot the rash on darker skin, but you may be able to see it more clearly on paler areas such as the palms of the hands or the roof of the mouth. The rash is a sign of blood poisoning or septicaemia caused by the meningococcal bacteria. Meningococcal septicaemia or meningitis is a very serious and potentially life-threating disease.
In babies, the symptoms can look slightly different. You may notice that your child is more agitated than usual and doesn't want to feed or be held. The soft spot on the top of the head can bulge out, and babies may become floppy or unresponsive. The sound your baby makes when crying may also change, becoming more high pitched than usual.
You shouldn't expect to see all of these symptoms and you shouldn’t wait until you see a rash or the more serious symptoms before seeking medical help.
Meningitis can cause serious complications, but these usually only occur when the infection is bacterial rather than viral. The infection caused by bacterial meningitis can cause permanent damage to the nerves or the brain. Potential long term complications of bacterial meningitis include hearing or vision loss, memory or concentration problems, epilepsy, and coordination or balance problems. In cases of meningococcal septicaemia and meningitis there is often a rapid and severe illness with mutilating scarring of skin and limbs may need to be amputated and the disease can also be fatal. It is important to seek treatment quickly if you think your child might have meningitis.
Meningitis can be caused by either a bacterial or a viral infection. Like other infections, meningitis can be spread by coughing, sneezing, sharing cutlery, or kissing. It is often spread by people who are carrying the bacteria or virus without being affected themselves, but it is possible for someone with meningitis to infect other people too. Vaccinations are available against some forms of meningitis and they are offered as part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule.
You should seek medical help right away if you suspect that your child has meningitis. You don't have to wait until you see a rash, although this is one of the most recognizable signs of meningococcal meningitis. You can check whether a rash might be caused by meningitis be pressing the base or side of a glass against it. If you can still see the rash through the glass, it could be meningitis. If the rash disappears, it is probably something else, but you should still seek medical advice if you are concerned or if your child has other symptoms such as a high fever. It is important to get treatment for meningitis or other childhood infections as soon as possible in order to reduce the risk of serious complications.
If your doctor suspects meningitis, your child will need to have tests to confirm the diagnosis and to find out whether the infection is caused by bacteria or a virus. It is important to identify the cause of meningitis because it will determine how the infection should be treated.
Bacterial meningitis can be more serious. It usually needs to be treated in hospital, so your child could be admitted for at least a week. The treatment usually includes IV fluids to tackle dehydration, oxygen given through a face-mask to overcome the breathing difficulties, and antibiotics to eliminate the bacteria that are causing the infection. Bacterial meningitis can usually be treated very effectively, but there is a risk of long-term complications, particularly if the infection is not treated quickly. In some cases, the infection can even be fatal, so it is important to seek medical care quickly if you suspect meningitis.
Viral meningitis is usually less severe, so your child may not need to be admitted to hospital. The symptoms can often be managed at home with painkillers, anti-sickness medication, and lots of rest. The infection usually gets better within about ten days and most children will make a full recovery.