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Signs and symptoms of meningitis in babies and toddlers

Meningitis and septicaemia* can happen together. Be aware of all the symptoms and seek medical help if you are concerned. Symptoms can appear in any order and some may not appear at all. It is especially important to keep checking babies as they can become seriously ill very quickly..

*Many medical experts now use the term sepsis instead of septicaemia

Oscar P bacterial meningitis case study

Common signs & symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia

Symptoms can appear in any order. Some may not appear at all.

  • Child with a fever Fever, cold hands and feet
  • Child vomiting Refusing food and vomiting
  • Child looking fretful Fretful, dislike being handled
  • A sleepy child Drowsy, floppy, unresponsive
  • Child breathing rapidly Rapid breathing or grunting
  • A pale, blotchy child Pale, blotchy skin. Spots/rash.
    See the Glass Test
  • Crying child Unusual cry, moaning
  • Soft spot on child Tense, bulging fontanelle (soft spot)
  • Child disliking the light Stiff neck, dislike bright lights
  • Child having convulsions Convulsions/seizures

Very young babies may not have a fever. Their temperature could be normal or low.

Symptoms can appear in any order. Some may not appear at all.

DO NOT wait for a rash.

If your baby or toddler is ill and getting worse, get medical help immediately.

A baby or toddler with meningitis or septicaemia can get a lot worse very quickly. Keep checking them.

Trust your instincts – Get medical help immediately.

Why are the under-5s at risk?

Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable to meningitis as they cannot easily fight infection because their immune system is not yet fully developed. The most common causes of meningitis are bacteria and viruses. Viral meningitis is rarely life-threatening, but can still make babies and young children very unwell. Most children will make a good recovery, but recovery can be slow. Bacterial meningitis can be fatal and needs rapid admission to hospital and urgent medical treatment. Whilst most children will make a good recovery, around 10% will die and some will be left with lifelong disabilities.

Find out more about the after-effects of meningitis and septicaemia.

Some bacteria that cause meningitis can also cause septicaemia (blood poisoning). The rash associated with meningitis is actually caused by septicaemia. You should never wait for a rash, it can be a late sign or may not appear at all. Learn more about the rash and glass test.

Download more information about meningitis in babies and children under 5.