Meningitis and septicaemia symptoms in toddlers

If you have a child under five years old, you need to be aware of meningitis and septicaemia. Why? Because children in this age group are more at risk than older children and adults.

Meningococcal disease is the leading cause of meningitis amongst children in the UK and Ireland. This bug kills more children under five than any other infectious disease. Even children who survive may be left with life-changing disabilities, from learning difficulties and behavioural problems to hearing loss and amputations.

Fortunately, most children have natural resistance to the bugs that cause meningitis and septicaemia, and vaccines give excellent protection against many forms. But not all forms can be prevented, so it’s very important that everyone is aware of the symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia. These symptoms can be hard to recognise, especially in small children who get lots of minor illnesses with similar symptoms and can’t explain how they are feeling.

But meningitis and septicaemia can kill in hours, so always trust your instincts and get urgent medical help.

Meningitis and septicaemia: the symptoms to look out for

Meningitis is inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord – the meninges. Septicaemia is blood poisoning caused by the same germs and is the more life-threatening form of the disease. Septicaemia can occur with or without meningitis.

In young children, the first symptoms of meningitis are usually fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell. Limb pain, pale skin, and cold hands and feet often appear earlier than a rash, neck stiffness and dislike of bright lights and confusion.

Ticks in a circle show symptoms more specific to meningitis and septicaemia and less common in milder illnesses.
Meningitis symptoms - Fever and/or Vomiting
Fever and / or vomiting
Meningitis symptoms - Severe headache
Severe headache
Meningitis symptoms - Limb / joint / muscle pain (sometimes with stomach pain/diarrhoea)
Limb / joint / muscle pain (sometimes with stomach pain/diarrhoea)
Meningitis symptoms - Cold hand and feet / shivering
Cold hands and feet / shivering
Meningitis symptoms - Pale or mottled skin
Pale or mottled skin
Meningitis symptoms - Breathing fast / breathless
Breathing fast / breathless
Meningitis symptoms - Rash (anywhere on the body)
Rash (anywhere on the body)
Meningitis symptoms - Stiff neck (less common in young children)
Stiff neck (less common in young children)
Meningitis symptoms - Dislike of bright lights (less common in young children)
Dislike of bright lights (less common in young children)
Meningitis symptoms - Very sleepy / vacant / difficult to wake
Very sleepy / vacant / difficult to wake
Meningitis symptoms - Confused / delirious
Confused / delirious
Meningitis symptoms - Seizures (fits)
Seizures (fits)

Other symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia to be aware of in toddlers are:

  • A tense or bulging soft spot on their head.

  • Refusing to feed.

  • Irritable when picked up, with a high pitched or moaning cry.

  • A stiff body with jerky movements, or else floppy and lifeless.

Five things to remember if you think your child has meningitis or septicaemia

  • It’s a common misconception that, if you have meningitis, there will be a rash. But a rash doesn’t appear in all cases. If you are seriously worried about someone who is ill, don’t wait for a rash. Get medical help immediately.

  • Not everyone gets all of the meningitis and septicaemia symptoms above, so if your child is ill don’t hesitate – get professional medical help from your local clinician fast.

  • Meningitis and septicaemia symptoms can appear in any order and can be easily mistaken for other childhood illnesses.

  • Septicaemia (often called sepsis) can occur with or without meningitis: both infections are caused by the same bacteria, with septicaemia the more life-threatening form of the disease.

  • You know your child best; check on them often (including through the night), trust your instincts and act fast.

What is the meningitis rash?

If you are seriously worried about someone who is ill, don’t wait for a rash to appear – get medical help. But if they are already ill and have a rash, or one appears, use the tumbler test.

Meningitis tumbler/glass test showing rash on child's leg

The tumbler test

Press a clear glass tumbler firmly against the rash. If you can see the marks clearly through the glass get urgent medical help immediately.
Meningitis rash on legs of child
Check the entire body. Look out for tiny red or brown pin-prick marks which can change into larger red or purple blotches and blood blisters.
Meningitis rash on dark skin of child
The darker the skin the harder it is to see a septicaemic rash, so check lighter areas like the palms of hands and soles of feet or look inside the eyelids and the roof of the mouth.

Remember, a very ill person needs medical help even if there are only a few spots, a rash or no rash at all. More on what is the meningitis rash.

How can I protect my child from meningitis and septicaemia?

The single most effective thing you can do to protect your children from meningitis is to make sure they are fully immunised.

Every injection in routine immunisation programme for babies protects against some form of meningitis. Booster vaccines are not just a top-up. Vaccines given after 12 months of age are very important. Without these immunisations your child’s protection will be short lived.

But since not all forms of meningitis can be prevented, it’s important you know the symptoms. That way you can recognise the disease in time to get medical help if your child is affected.

More support

If you have questions or concerns about meningitis or septicaemia you can ring our Support Services on 080 8800 3344 in the UK or 1800 41 33 44 in the Republic of Ireland. But don’t wait to speak to us if you think you or someone you care about is seriously ill – always call your medical services.

Further resources

Meningitis symptoms Download our meningitis and septicaemia symptoms infographic: A4 version | A5 version

Read what vaccines are available to prevent meningitis

Meningitis and septicaemia symptoms checker including what to if your child is unwell and you suspect meningitis or septicaemia (our safety-netting resources).

Meningitis symptoms in babies

Meningitis symptoms in teenagers and young adults


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Membership and support

The MRF Membership and Support team are here for you for any questions you might have about meningitis and septicaemia and their effects on you, or your family and friends.

Tel: Helpline UK 080 8800 3344 Ireland 1800 41 33 44