What to do if your child is unwell

Red Symptoms

High risk: take immediate action. 
If your child is unwell and has any of these red symptoms GO TO A&E IMMEDIATELY OR CALL 999
- Over 38°C in babies under three months
- Has a temperature and feels abnormally cold to touch / very cold hands and feet

- Very fast breathing, finding it much harder to breathe than normal, or noticeable pauses in breathing
- Grunting; noises with every breath

- Very lethargic/difficult to wake/not responding
- Fit/ convulsion/ seizures
- Weak, high pitched or continuous crying in a younger child
- Confusion or unusually irritable
- Soft spot on a baby’s head is bulging
- Stiff neck, especially when trying to look up and down
- Unusually sleepy, stiff or floppy baby

- Blue skin, lips or tongue
- Very pale or mottled skin
- A rash that DOES NOT FADE when pressed with a glass

- Not had a wee or wet nappy for 12 hours
- Very thirsty and not able to keep fluids down
- Bloody or black ‘coffee ground’ sick

Babies under 8 weeks old
Young infants are particularly vulnerable to serious infection. Seek urgent medical help if your young baby shows has a combination of any of the following symptoms with or without fever:
- persistent refusal to feed
- lethargic/excessively sleepy
- irritable
- stiff or floppy body
- weak/high pitched or continuous cry
- grunting
- soft spot on the baby’s head is bulging

Some of these red symptoms are not typical signs of meningitis or septicaemia (sepsis), but are still signs of severe illness so if your child is unwell and has any of the red symptoms seek urgent medical help.

Trust your instincts. Parents and guardians often know when their child is seriously ill. If your child is ill and getting worse, don’t be afraid to seek medical help immediately – even if you have already seen a doctor.

Amber Symptoms

Intermediate risk: ask for advice.
If you are worried about a child who has any of these amber symptoms call NHS111 or see your GP without delay.
- Over 39°C in babies aged three to six months
- High temperature in a child who shows no interest in anything or high temperature for more than 5 days
- Low temperature (below 36°C, check three times in a 10 minute period)

- Fast breathing
- Cough that sounds like a seal barking
- Older child can’t say more than a few words
- Noisy or crackly breathing
- Nostrils are flaring

- Unusually sleepy
- Child cannot be encouraged to show interest in anything/not wanting to do very much
- Not responding normally to family or carers
- Child under 5 not smiling
- Shivering or shaking
- Severe headache
- Dislike of bright lights
- Limb/joint/muscle pain
- Not using/putting weight on an arm, leg, hand or foot
- Swelling of a limb or joint

- Pale skin, lips or tongue in child under 5
- Sunken eyes
- Rash that DOES FADE when pressed with a clear glass

- Not feeding or eating much
- Not drinking for more than eight hours (when awake)
- Dry mouth
- Under 1 year of age with vomiting and/or diarrhoea
- Vomiting more than twice in the last 24 hours or has bile stained vomit
- More than 5 watery poos in 24 hrs
- Only 1 wet nappy or wee in the last 12 hours

Other advice

You may have already seen a health professional about your child but it is important to seek further advice if:

  • You feel that your child is worse than when you previously sought advice
  • You are more worried about your chid than when you previously sought advice
  • You are concerned that you are unable to look after your child

Meningitis and septicaemia (sepsis) are unusual in children. But if you do have concerns and your child’s health is not improving as quickly as you would expect or seems to be getting worse, even if their temperature falls, act swiftly.

Other symptoms

When deciding whether a child is well enough to go home or needs to be in hospital, a health professional needs to take measurements such as heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen level and alertness. National UK guidelines outline what doctors should measure in children with fever or suspected infection and when they should refer children to hospital.

These guidelines are available below:

Fever in under 5s: Assessment and initial management

Meningitis (bacterial) and meningococcal septicaemia in under 16s: recognition, diagnosis and management

Sepsis: Recognition, diagnosis and early management

Our resources

We have a wide variety of pinted resource to help people spot the signs of meningitis.

Order our printed resources here.

Other resources

The following resources are available from other charities and organisations to help parents and guardians caring for sick children at home.

Meningitis and septicaemia can kill in hours - know the symptoms.
There are safe and effective vaccines available that that protect against the most common causes of life-threatening bacterial meningitis and septicaemia

Detailed information about the after effects of meningitis

Dr Fiona McGill answers one of our most frequently asked questions.
Give new mums access to lifesaving information

Give new mums access to lifesaving information

£13/€15.50/$17 gives 1,000 new mums access to lifesaving information
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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