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Childhood meningitis – your need to know guide

Sick child
We give you the lowdown on the disease and how you can recognise the signs to help protect your child’s health.

While meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia (blood poisoning) can affect anyone at any time, children under 16 are the demographic group most at risk from catching the infection.

Meningitis is potentially fatal, killing more children under five than any other infectious disease. And even survivors can be left with severe, disabling after-effects, including brain damage, deafness and, where septicaemia has occurred, loss of limbs.

Every year there are at least 1,500 reported cases in under-16s, although experts estimate that there are actually twice as many cases in UK.


Meningitis in children

Young children and babies are more susceptible to meningitis because their immune systems are immature and their resistance has not fully developed. That said, adults can also get meningitis and it is a common misconception that it is a purely childhood disease.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is the inflammation of the meninges, the protective layers surrounding the brain. There are two main types - bacterial and viral.

Bacterial meningitis
Although uncommon it is fatal in approximately one in 10 cases and one in seven survivors are left with a serious disability. Cases of bacterial meningitis tend to peak during the winter months, between September and April. Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics, but it needs to be treated extremely quickly so urgent hospital treatment is vital.

Viral meningitis
While this is more common than the bacterial form, it's not usually as serious or as life-threatening. That said, it can cause memory loss, concentration problems, headaches, tiredness and depression in those that are unfortunate enough to get it. The symptoms are similar to those associated with bacterial meningitis they are usually less severe and for many patients it can feel like flu. For this reason many cases of viral meningitis go unreported.

Recognising the symptoms

Meningitis and septicaemia are not always easy to recognise at first. In the early stages, signs and symptoms can be similar to a number of other non life-threatening childhood infections, for example, ear infection or flu. Early symptoms can include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting and general tiredness.
Other typical symptoms include having a stiff neck, dislike of bright lights, joint or muscle pain and confusion. A fever with cold hands and feet and a rash that does not fade under pressure are signs of septicaemia.

What to do if your child is ill?

If a child is ill or obviously getting worse, parents are advised not to wait for a rash since it may appear late or not at all. It should also be noted that these symptoms may not appear in this order and some may not appear at all. The onset of the disease can be slow, however, deterioration is often rapid. Parents should trust their instincts and if in any doubt, contact their GP immediately.

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