Signs of Meningitis: The top 10 Symptoms to Look Out For

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A woman in a laboratory doing some tests


Meningitis can be a serious life-threatening illness and it is crucial for it to be diagnosed early so effective treatment can be provided. Sadly, there are often occasions when doctors and nurses should have considered or diagnosed meningitis sooner. When a delay of only a few hours can have significant consequences, unfortunately this can mean the difference between making a full recovery or sustaining life-changing injuries.

This article sets out the most common and recognisable symptoms of meningitis, and what to do if they were missed.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the fluid and membranes (meninges) surrounding your brain and spinal cord. There are different types of meningitis, with some being more serious than others.

  • Viral Meningitis is more common that bacterial meningitis and whilst it is rarely life threatening it can still make people quite unwell and result in a long recovery process.
  • Bacterial Meningitis is very serious and needs urgent treatment in hospital with antibiotics.

It can occur when bacteria directly invade the meninges (the layer that covers and protects your brain and spinal cord). This could be caused by an ear infection, sinus infection or skull fracture amongst other things. However, it can also occur when bacteria enter the bloodstream and travels to the brain and spinal cord.

  • You may have also heard of the term meningococcal disease. This is often used to describe both meningitis and septicaemia. Septicaemia is when bacteria enter the blood stream causing blood poisoning which can trigger sepsis. This is a severe infection of the blood that can cause widespread damage to the body.

Who is at the most risk from meningitis?

Meningitis can affect anyone at any age. However, there are certain factors that increase the risk, such as age. Babies and infants (between 0 – 5 years old) are at the greatest risk, followed by 15 – 24 year olds and then the over-65s. Whilst it is more common in children, meningitis in adults can still occur.

What are the main signs and symptoms of meningitis?

 It can be very upsetting when your child is sick and you are not sure why, and the possibility of meningitis infection only adds to that stress. Often, meningitis symptoms are similar to flu symptoms and it can be difficult to assess the seriousness of an illness when your patient can’t tell you how they’re feeling. Possible meningitis symptoms to watch for in children over 2 years old include:

  1. Sudden high fever
  2. Stiff neck
  3. Severe headache that seems different from normal
  4. Headache with nausea or vomiting
  5. Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  6. Seizures
  7. Sleepiness or difficulty waking
  8. Sensitivity to light
  9. No appetite or thirst
  10. Skin rash (sometimes, such as in meningococcal meningitis)

In babies, they may be excessively irritable and constantly crying with a high fever. You may find they are disinterested in feeding, and not waking to eat. They may be showing signs of inactivity or sluggishness, and be difficult to wake from sleep. Physically, symptoms of meningitis in babies can also include stiffness in the body and beck and sometimes a bulge in the soft spot on top of their head.

These symptoms do not always appear together, and so you should seek immediate medical advice if you have any concerns at all.

Complications from Meningitis and Septicaemia

Most of the time people make a full recovery from meningitis if treated promptly. However, delay in diagnosis and treatment can lead to some devastating injuries and, in 1 in 10 cases, death. The longer the infection is left untreated the greater the risk of serious injury is. Injuries can include:-

  • Brain damage
  • Learning disabilities
  • Hearing loss
  • seizures
  • Bone growth problems after septicaemia sometimes requiring the use of external fixator frames for correction.
  • Amputation including the loss of fingers, toes and limbs as a result of septicaemia
  • Kidney damage

 Can I make a negligence claim for missed or delayed diagnosis of meningitis?

Yes you can. It’s a sad fact that we’re often asked to help many children and adults who have suffered preventable injuries like those listed above because of a delay in treatment. Often there are signs and symptoms missed by doctors and nurses that mean the delay should not have happened.

5th October marks the world Meningitis Awareness Day. We are proud to be supporting Meningitis Now ( insert link to charity Meningitis Now | Meningitis charity | Research and awareness | Meningitis Now ), the charity dedicated to raising awareness and fighting meningitis in the UK.

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