Post updated January 2020

Meningitis is a deadly disease that can develop very quickly and kill in hours. It can happen to anyone of any age.

This disease is most common in babies, young children and teenagers. However, cases in young adults are being increasingly reported. Students in their first year at university are now the second most ‘at risk’ group for contracting this disease.

There are many misconceptions about meningitis as some symptoms are similar to those of common illnesses. This article will lay out exactly what meningitis is, how to recognise the symptoms and what you can do to get medical help fast.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges – the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.

meninges diagram

Meningitis can be viral or bacterial. The former is unpleasant and can make people feel extremely unwell. However it is rarely life-threatening or a cause of long-term complications. On the opposite, bacterial meningitis can be extremely serious and result in life changing complications or death.

The most common strain of bacterial meningitis, meningococcal group B, is responsible for more than 90% of meningococcal infections in young children. For this strain of the disease, there is the MenB vaccine available as part of the NHS routine childhood vaccination programme.

If you not treat it quickly, or preventatively treat it with vaccination, the consequences can be very serious.

Some of the most common complications associated with meningitis are:

  • Hearing loss
  • Seizures
  • Vision loss
  • Memory, coordination and balance problems
  • Arthritis
  • Kidney problems
  • Loss of limbs due to the infection spreading around the body and damaging tissue and

Overall, studies estimate up to 1 in every 10 cases of bacterial meningitis is fatal.

What are the signs and symptoms? 
  • Pale, mottled skin.
  • Feeling seriously unwell.
  • Cold hands and feet.
  • Fever, vomiting, headache and feeling generally unwell. These early symptoms are extremely difficult to recognise as they are similar to many other less serious illnesses.
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhoea
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Floppy, lifeless and drowsy.
  • A rash may not appear at all, but if the person is unwell and you see a rash which does not disappear when pressure is applied to it (the tumbler test), call an ambulance.

In young babies, the rise in intracranial pressure within the brain can lead to the soft spot of their head (fontanelle) being raised. If the baby is unwell, a raised fontanelle could be a sign of meningitis.

These symptoms can appear in any order and you do not always get all the symptoms.

Other meningitis symptoms specific to toddlers and babies:
  • Refusing to eat/feed
  • Irritable, not wanting to be held/touched
  • A stiff body, with jerky movements, or floppy, unable to stand up
  • A tense or bulging soft spot on the head (fontanelle)
  • A high pitched or moaning cry
What can I do?

You should get medical advice as soon as possible if you think you or your child may have meningitis.

Call 999 for an ambulance or go to your nearest A&E. If you’re not sure if its serious then call NHS 111 or your GP surgery for advice.

The tumbler test

NEVER wait for a rash – it is usually one of the last signs to appear and may not appear at all.

With most rashes, when pressure is applied to the skin, the rash disappears. With meningitis, the rash is different and does not disappear with pressure and so can be seen when a clear glass tumbler is pressed over the skin.

It can be harder to see a rash on dark skin, check the soles of the feet, palms of hands, roof of mouth and inside eyelids.      

rashtumbler test

Images thanks to the meningitis research foundation

It is important that you do not wait for a rash to appear before testing and raising concern.

Call an ambulance if:
  • You/the casualty is displaying some of the symptoms listed above and is getting worse
  • A rash begin to appear and you are still able to see it if you apply pressure with the side of a glass (the tumbler test).
  • You are sent home from the hospital or GP Surgery and the you or your child gets worse. In that case, Return again. Trust your instincts and tell them you are worried!


First Aid for life include common illnesses on most of our training. Please join one of our practical or online first aid courses to ensure you have the skills to help in a medical emergency.

Written by Emma Hammett.

First Aid for Life provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for medical advice. First Aid for Life is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made, or actions taken based on this information. It is strongly advised that you attend a First Aid course to understand what to do in a medical emergency.

Email: or telephone 020 8675 4036 for more information.– Award Winning First Aid training tailored to your needs– The convenient way to learn vital skills straight from experts



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