Symptoms of meningitis 

Every suspected case of meningitis should be treated as a medical emergency.

Bacterial meningitis can lead to septicaemia (blood poisoning), which can be fatal.

Bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is more serious than viral meningitis. The symptoms usually begin suddenly and get worse rapidly.

If you suspect bacterial meningitis, dial 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance.

Babies and young children

Babies and young children under five years of age are most at risk of developing bacterial meningitis.

A baby or young child with meningitis may:

  • have a high fever, with cold hands and feet
  • vomit and refuse to feed
  • feel agitated and not want to be picked up
  • become drowsy, floppy and unresponsive
  • grunt or breathe rapidly
  • have an unusual high-pitched or moaning cry
  • have pale, blotchy skin, and a red rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over it (see below)
  • have a tense, bulging soft spot on their head (fontanelle)
  • have a stiff neck and dislike bright lights
  • have convulsions or seizures

The above symptoms can appear in any order, and some may not appear at all.

The rash can be harder to see on dark skin, in which case check for spots on paler areas like the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, on the tummy, inside the eyelids and on the roof of the mouth.

However, don't wait for a rash to develop. If your child is unwell and getting worse, seek medical help immediately.

In older children, teenagers and adults, the symptoms of meningitis can include:

  • a fever, with cold hands and feet 
  • vomiting
  • drowsiness and difficulty waking up
  • confusion and irritability
  • severe muscle pain
  • pale, blotchy skin, and a distinctive rash (although not everyone will have this)    
  • a severe headache
  • stiff neck
  • sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • convulsion or seizures

Again, these symptoms can appear in any order, and not everyone will get all of them.

Don't wait for a rash to develop. If someone is unwell and has symptoms of meningitis, seek medical help immediately.

The glass test

If you press the side of a clear glass firmly against the skin and the rash doesn't fade, it's a sign of meningococcal septicaemia.

A person with septicaemia may have a rash of tiny "pin pricks" that later develops into purple bruising.

A fever with a rash that doesn't fade under pressure is a medical emergency, and you should seek immediate medical help.

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, your symptoms may include:

  • neck stiffness
  • muscle or joint pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • sensitivity to light (photophobia) 

Unlike bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis doesn't usually lead to septicaemia (blood poisoning).

A blotchy red rash that doesn't fade or change colour when a glass is pressed against it is a possible symptom of bacterial meningitis 

Bacterial or viral meningitis?

It's not possible to tell the difference between bacterial and viral meningitis from the symptoms alone.

Clinical tests are needed to distinguish between the two types of meningitis. Therefore, every case of suspected meningitis should be treated as a medical emergency.

Page last reviewed: 10/06/2014

Next review due: 10/06/2016