Meningitis - spotting it in babies and toddlers

Written by: 
Dr Knut Schroeder, General Practitioner and Author

“Could this be meningitis?” is one of the most common questions that parents may have when their young child is ill and has a fever. But what really is meningitis, how can you spot it, and what should you do if you suspect your baby or toddler has it?

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is a rare inflammationThe body’s response to injury. of the membrane surrounding the brain. It can affect any person of any age at any time, but certain groups of people are more at risk than others. The risk is highest for babies, toddlers and children under five (one out of two cases occur in this age group), followed by college students. But adults can also be affected.

There are two main types of meningitis – viral and bacterial. Viral meningitis is relatively common, but rarely deadly. It may start like a fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system.-like illness, and antibioticsMedication to treat infections caused by microbes (organisms that can't be seen with the naked eye), such as bacteria. won’t work. The bacterial forms of meningitis are much rarer, but they’re more dangerous and can be fatal. Meningococcus is the most common bacterial cause in the UK. 

What is meningococcal septicaemia?

If meningococcus enters the bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. stream and multiplies uncontrollably, this is called meningococcal septicaemia (or ‘bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. poisoning’). When these bacteriaA group of organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye, which are usually made up of just a single cell. die and fall apart, they release poisons (or toxins) into the bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid.. This can cause damage to bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. vessels, which can harm various organs in the body and often leads to a typical rash. 

How can I spot meningitis or septicaemia in my child?

Spotting meningitis or meningococcal disease in the early stages isn’t always easy because symptoms and signs can be very similar to other, more harmless viral illnesses. There are some common signs and symptoms in babies and toddlers, which may appear in any order, but aren’t necessarily all present. Your child may:

  • have a fever with cold hands and feet
  • not like being handled
  • refuse food, with or without vomiting
  • be much less responsive, floppy or drowsy
  • breathe unusually fast or grunts
  • looks pale and may have blotchy skin or a rash that doesn’t fade under pressure (do the ‘tumbler test’ by pressing the bottom or side of a glass firmly against your child’s skin – if the rash disappears, meningococcal disease is unlikely)
  • have an unusual cry or moan
  • have a tense and bulging soft spot (also known as fontanelle)
  • dislike bright lights and have a stiff neck
  • have a seizureUncontrolled electrical activity within the brain, leading to convulsions or an alteration in mental state. (fit or convulsion)

What should I do?

Remember that meningitis is rare, and harmless viral infections are much, much more common. But if you suspect that your child may suffer from meningitis or meningococcal disease, get medical help immediately, because early treatment with antibioticsMedication to treat infections caused by microbes (organisms that can't be seen with the naked eye), such as bacteria. is important. Don’t wait until your child gets a rash. For more detailed information (and to find out what the typical rash looks like) check out the Meningitis Trust (www.meningitistrust.org) website.