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.

The following are signs of possible serious illness

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.

When should I seek further help if I am worried?

Remember that not all babies will develop all the signs and symptoms.  If they develop some of them, especially the red or purple spots, get medical help urgently. If you can't get in touch with your GP, call NHS24 on 111. If you are still worried after getting advice, trust your instincts and take your baby to the emergency department of your nearest hospital. The earlier babies are treated, the better their chances of making a full recovery.  



Vaccines are available for meningitis and septicaemia but they don’t protect against all the types of meningococcal infections. The MenB vaccine helps protect babies against meningitis and septicaemia caused by Meningococcal type B. The combined Hib/MenC vaccine helps protect babies against meningitis and septicaemia caused by Hib and meningococcal type C (MenC) bacteria. However, the MenB and the combined Hib/MenC vaccines do not protect against all the causes of meningitis and septicaemia.
A vaccine called PCV provides some protection against meningitis, and also against other conditions such as severe ear infections (otitis media) and pneumonia caused by pneumococcal bacteria. The vaccine does not protect against all types of pneumococcal infection and does not protect against meningitis caused by other bacteria or viruses. You can find more information on all these vaccines on the immunisationscotland website. 

More information

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

Last Updated: 06 March 2017
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