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How to identify meningitis

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 2 minutes read

Meningitis is a life-threatening infection of the protective membranes that surround the brain and the spinal cord called the meninges. You must be able to identify the symptoms of meningitis as it can develop into a life-threatening infection known as sepsis or septicemia. It is critical to know that the symptoms of meningitis can occur in any order. Because of the severity, if you suspect that a family member or someone you know could have meningitis, you should seek urgent medical advice.

Symptoms of meningitis

Meningitis makes people very unwell, and they will look poorly. The symptoms of meningitis can be varied, and you can get them in any order, and any cluster of them together. If you, your child, or the person you suspect as having meningitis is well (eating and drinking well, doing normal things, alert and similar to their normal self), they are less likely to have meningitis.

The types of symptoms that can indicate meningitis include:

  • A high temperature
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Breathing quickly
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Pale, mottled, or blotchy skin
  • Spots or a rash
  • Headache
  • A stiff neck
  • A dislike of bright lights
  • Being very sleepy or difficult to awaken
  • Fits (seizures)

Babies may also be found to be:

  • Refusing feeds
  • Increased irritability
  • Have a distressed and different cry than normal
  • Have a stiff body or be floppy or unresponsive
  • Have a bulging soft spot on the top of their head

Someone with meningitis, septicemia, or meningococcal disease can get more unwell very quickly.

The rash

The rash that is typical of meningitis tends to start with small red pinpricks, progressing into the formation of red or purple blotches.

The rash does not fade if you perform the glass test that many people are familiar with. This is where you press the side of a clear glass firmly against the skin, and the rash doesn’t fade. However, in the very early stages of the rash, it may initially fade, so if a rash is changing over time – it can be a good idea to check again later.

Lots of photos of rashes are pictured on light skin, which isn’t always helpful for large portions of the population. The rash can be harder to see on dark skin, and so some ways of picking up subtle rashes can be to check paler areas such as the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, the roof of the mouth, tummy, and the eyes.

When to seek advice

If you are concerned that someone has meningitis, then you should seek medical advice. If the person or child is well, then your local doctor may be an appropriate first step. If the person is very unwell, with fevers and other severe symptoms, and you are concerned this is a life-threatening emergency, then going to the emergency department or calling 911 may be the safest next step.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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