Meningitis and septicaemia

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. This causes pressure on the brain resulting in symptoms such as severe headache, stiff neck, dislike of bright light, drowsiness and convulsions/fits. Meningitis can progress very rapidly and can lead to deafness, blindness, epilepsy and learning difficulties. It can even lead to death.

What is septicaemia?

Septicaemia (blood poisoning) is a serious, life-threatening infection that gets worse very quickly and the risk of death is higher compared with meningitis.

Signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia

In babies, the main symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia may include:

  • refusing feeds, vomiting
  • feeling drowsy and not responding to you, or being difficult to wake
  • being floppy and having no energy, or being stiff with jerky movements
  • being irritable when picked up
  • a high-pitched moaning cry
  • grunting
  • rapid or unusual patterns of breathing
  • a fever
  • cold hands and/or feet
  • skin that is pale, blotchy or turning blue
  • shivering
  • spots or a rash that does not fade under pressure – do the ‘glass test’ by pressing a clear glass against the rash to see if it fades and loses colour – if it doesn’t change, get medical help straight away
  • convulsions/seizures
  • a bulging fontanelle (the soft patch on the top of the newborn baby’s head)
  • a stiff neck
  • disliking bright lights.

Symptoms can occur in any order and some may not appear at all – trust your instincts.  Some of the symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of flu, so, if you’re in any doubt about your baby’s health, trust your instincts and get advice urgently by contacting your GP or calling NHS 24 free on 111.

Meningitis can strike at any age, so it’s important to know the symptoms of the disease for all age groups. To find out more, see Meningitis on Immunisation Scotland website.

The ‘glass test’

The rash, if present, starts as tiny red pinprick spots or marks and later changes to purple blotches, which can look like bruises or blood blisters. The rash can be anywhere. Press a clear drinking glass firmly against the rash so you can see if the rash fades and loses colour under pressure.

If it doesn’t change colour, contact your GP immediately. The spots and rash are more difficult to see on darker skin, so check paler areas such as the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and the eye area. Not everyone who gets meningitis will have this rash.

Who is most likely to get MenB disease?

MenB infection is most common in babies and young children. This is because their immune systems aren’t yet fully developed to fight off infection. The highest number of cases are in babies around 5 months of age. This is why the first immunisations are offered to babies younger than this and have to be given at 2 and 4 months of age.

Teenagers and young adults are the next group most affected by MenB because the high level of social activity at these ages (for example, at school) leads to an increase in the spread of bacteria.

Can MenB disease be treated?

Bacterial meningitis and septicaemia need urgent, rapid treatment with antibiotics in a hospital. If the treatment starts quickly, then the illness is much less likely to be life-threatening or cause permanent disability.

Can MenB disease be prevented?

Yes. There’s now a vaccine that helps protect babies against MenB and there are other vaccines, like MenC, that protect against some other types of meningococcal infections.

Immunising babies helps protect them when they are most at risk of developing meningococcal disease.

When will my baby be offered the MenB vaccine?

The MenB vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunisation programme in Scotland since 1 September 2015. You will be sent an appointment to bring your child in for their routine childhood immunisations.

Babies born on or after 1 July 2015 are offered the MenB vaccine when they come in for their other routine immunisations at 2, 4 and 12 months.

The MenB vaccine will be given at the same time as the other routine immunisations your baby will be due at these times.

If this is a brand new vaccine, how do we know it’s safe?

Before they are allowed to be used, all vaccines are carefully tested for safety and effectiveness. They have been through up to 10 years of trials in the laboratory and among volunteers.

The UK is the first country to introduce the MenB vaccine into its routine immunisation schedule for children. The vaccine is already offered to children in the UK with certain medical conditions and has also been used to contain outbreaks of MenB disease, where it proved to be both safe and effective.

Over 1 million doses have already been given in 19 countries worldwide.

Does the MenB vaccine have any side effects?

As with all medicines, vaccines can cause side effects. After the MenB vaccine, side effects may include:

  • redness, swelling or tenderness where they had the injection (this will slowly disappear on its own within a few days)
  • being a bit irritable and feeding poorly
  • sleepiness
  • a temperature (fever).

Fever (a temperature over 37.5°C) shows that a baby’s body is responding to the vaccine – although not getting a fever doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked. The level of fever will depend on the individual child and does not indicate how well the vaccine will protect your baby.

Fever can be expected after any immunisation, but is more common when the MenB vaccine is given with the other routine vaccines under 1 year. This is why paracetamol is recommended.

Giving paracetamol will reduce the risk of fever, irritability and discomfort for your baby after immunisation (such as pain at the site of the injection).
It is important that a total of three doses of infant paracetamol are given to babies after each of their first two MenB immunisations to reduce the chances of fever.

Are there any babies who shouldn’t have the immunisation?

The vaccine should not be given to babies who have had:

  • a severe reaction to a previous dose of the vaccine or any of the ingredients of the vaccine.

Also, speak to your nurse or GP about the vaccine if your baby:

  • has a bleeding disorder (for example, haemophilia, where the blood doesn’t clot properly), or
  • has had a fit that was not associated with fever.

More information

For further information call the NHS Helpline on 0800 22 44 88 or visit the Immunisation Scotland website.

Last Updated: 08 March 2016
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