Meningitis and Septicaemia

Meningitis and Septicaemia

What are meningitis and septicaemia?

Meningitis means swelling of the linings of the brain and spinal cord (meninges). Septicaemia is blood poisoning. These conditions can be caused by the same bacteria and viruses and can occur separately or together. Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial, but is less serious. If treated early enough, most children will survive.

What is MenB?

MenB stands for meningococcal B bacteria. These bacteria can cause two serious types of infection: meningitis and septicaemia.
These infections are serious because they:

  • come on suddenly
  • progress very quickly
  • can leave survivors with life-long disabilities
  • can be fatal within hours

MenB infection is the cause of most cases of bacterial meningitis and septicaemia in babies and young children.

Signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia

The early signs and symptoms in babies may be difficult to spot as they are similar to flu, but 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 (see below) – 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 of meningitis or septicaemia can occur in any order. Not all babies develop all of the symptoms. Trust your instincts. If you suspect meningitis or septicaemia get medical help urgently by contacting your GP or calling NHS 24 on 111.

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 doctor 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.

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. However, the MenB vaccine does not protect against all the causes of meningitis and septicaemia.

More information

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

Last updated: 17 August 2015
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