Signs and symptoms of meningitis in babies and toddlers

Meningitis and septicaemia can happen together. Be aware of all the signs and symptoms of them in babies and toddlers. It is especially important to keep an eye on babies since they are unable to communicate when they are not feeling well

Meningitis signs and symptoms - babies

DO NOT wait for a rash. If your baby or toddler is ill and getting worse, get medical help immediately.

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

Common signs & symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia in babies and toddlers.

  • 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 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


Early symptoms can include:

Fever, headache, vomiting, muscle pain and fever with cold hands and feet.

Someone with meningitis or septicaemia can get a lot worse very quickly. Keep checking them.

Trust your instincts – Get medical help immediately

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.

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