Meningitis and septicaemia explained

Meningitis is a word that strikes fear into most people.

Every year in the UK and Ireland there are some 3,500 cases of bacterial meningitis and septicaemia.

Meningitis is usually bacterial or viral. Whilst viral meningitis can be very nasty it is almost never life-threatening and most people will soon make a full recovery. Bacterial meningitis is more serious and most cases in the UK and Ireland are caused by meningococcal bacteria. These bacteria also cause septicaemia, the blood poisoning and far more life-threatening form of the disease.

Meningococcal bacteria are common – about 10% of the population carry them in the back of the nose or throat. Carriage is less common in young children than in adults. Young adults have the highest rate of carriage, with up to one in four harbouring the bacteria.

The bacteria are passed on by prolonged or intimate contact. They are very fragile and do not survive outside the human body, so they are not easily transmitted. They cannot be caught from the air, clothes, bedding or from handling toys, cutlery or furniture.

Whilst there are vaccines in the childhood immunisation schedule in the UK and Ireland which give excellent protection against meningitis and septicaemia, there are other forms of these diseases that are not vaccine preventable. Until we have vaccines to protect against all major forms meningitis and septicaemia, knowing the symptoms is crucial.




    Fever and or vomiting Fever and/or vomiting black tick black tick
    Severe headache Severe headache
      black tick
    Limb, joint, muscle pain Limb/joint/muscle pain (sometimes with pain/diarrhoea)
    red tick  
    Cold hands and feet, shivering Cold hand and feet/shivering red tick  
    Pale or mottled skin Pale or mottled skin black tick  
    Breathing fast, breathlessness Breathing fast/breathless black tick  
    Rash Rash (anywhere on the body) red tick red tick
    Stiff neck Stiff neck (less common in young children)
      red tick
    Dislike of bright lights Dislike of bright lights (less common in young children)
      red tick
    Very sleepy, vacant, difficulty to wake Very sleepy /vacant /difficult to wake
    black tick black tick
    Confused, delirious Confused /delirious
    red tick red tick
    Seizures may also be seen Seizures (fits) may also be seen
      red tick

    Other meningitis symptoms in 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

    Babies and tiny tots may also have:

    • A tense or bulging soft spot on the head (fontanelle)
    • A high pitched or moaning

    Tumbler test for septicaemia

    Meningitis and septicaemia Tumbler test
    Picture courtesy Prof P Brandtzaeg

    If someone is ill and gets a rash, do the 'Tumbler Test'.

    Check for spots over the whole body.

    If a glass tumbler is pressed firmly against a septicaemic rash, the marks will not fade. You will be able to see the rash through the glass. If this happens get medical advice immediately. It is harder to see on dark skin, so check paler areas. Remember someone who is very ill needs medical help even if they have no rash or a rash that fades.


    Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF)

    MRF's vision is a world free from meningitis and septicaemia.

    The charity funds research to prevent meningitis and septicaemia, and to improve survival rates and outcomes.

    The Foundation promotes education and awareness to reduce death and disability, and gives support to people affected.

    Free helpline – 080 8800 3344 (UK) 1800 41 33 44 (Ireland)

    Meningitis Research Foundation has a free helpline which is operated by trained staff and nurses 365 days a year.

    A wide range of free literature and information is available to callers to the helpline and through this website with an interpretation service in 120 languages available through the helpline.

    Support Services

    The Foundation provides help, support and befriending to individuals and families affected by meningitis and septicaemia.


    Meningitis Research Foundation currently funds 19 research projects. Since it was founded in 1989, the charity has awarded 136 research grants leading to many advances in the prevention, detection and treatment of meningitis and septicaemia.

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