Meningitis - Symptoms 

Symptoms of meningitis 

Meningitis is a very serious illness, but most children make a full recovery if they are treated quickly.

Our symptom alert helps you recognise the signs and includes a printable checklist.

Bacterial or viral meningitis?

It is only possible to distinguish between bacterial and viral meningitis by carrying out clinical tests. It is not possible to tell the difference from the symptoms alone.

Therefore, every case of suspected meningitis should be treated as a medical emergency.

Meningitis should be treated as a medical emergency because bacterial meningitis can lead to septicaemia (blood poisoning), which can be fatal.

Bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is the more serious form of the condition. The symptoms usually begin suddenly and rapidly get worse. If you suspect a case of bacterial meningitis, you should phone 999 immediately to request an ambulance.

There are some early warning signs you may notice before the other symptoms appear.

Early warning signs

Bacterial meningitis has a number of early warning signs that usually occur before the other symptoms. These are:

  • pain in the muscles, joints or limbs, such as in the legs or hands
  • unusually cold hands and feet, or shivering
  • pale or blotchy skin and blue lips

The presence of a high temperature (fever) with any of the above symptoms should be taken very seriously. Phone 999 immediately to request an ambulance.

Early symptoms

The early symptoms of bacterial meningitis are similar to those of many other conditions, and include:

  • a severe headache
  • fever
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • vomiting (being sick)
  • feeling generally unwell

A fever is where you have a body temperature that is higher than usual. In general, in both adults and children this is taken to be a temperature of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above.

Other signs of fever include:

  • your face is hot to the touch
  • you look red or flushed

Later symptoms

As the condition gets worse it may cause:

  • drowsiness
  • confusion
  • seizures or fits
  • being unable to tolerate bright lights (photophobia)  this is less common in young children
  • a stiff neck  also less common in young children
  • a rapid breathing rate
  • a blotchy red rash that does not fade or change colour when you place a glass against it (a rash is not always present)

Babies and young children

The symptoms of bacterial meningitis are different in babies and young children. Possible symptoms include:

  • becoming floppy and unresponsive, or stiff with jerky movements
  • becoming irritable and not wanting to be held
  • unusual crying
  • vomiting and refusing feeds
  • pale and blotchy skin
  • loss of appetite
  • a staring expression
  • very sleepy and reluctant to wake up

Some babies will develop a swelling in the soft part of their head (fontanelle).

Viral meningitis

Most people with viral meningitis will have mild flu-like symptoms, such as:

  • headaches
  • fever (see above)
  • generally not feeling very well

In more severe cases of viral meningitis, symptoms may include:

  • neck stiffness
  • muscle or joint pain
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • vomiting (being sick)
  • diarrhoea (passing loose, watery stools)
  • photophobia (sensitivity to light)

Unlike bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis does not usually lead to septicaemia (blood poisoning).

Page last reviewed: 14/06/2012

Next review due: 14/06/2014


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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

MrSCooper said on 21 March 2013

Yes but it also says "•pale or blotchy skin and blue lips" and even a small case of flu can be a deadly emergancy to babies and elderly.

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dave1892 said on 05 November 2011

So, the Early Warning section says that if you have a fever, and, say, pain in your muscles, you should call 999? Surely that can be most viruses, including flu.

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