'More Than A Rash': The Meningitis And Sepsis Symptoms All Parents Should Know

Just 5% of parents can identify them all. Can you?
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Meningitis is every parent’s worst nightmare. We’re often told to look out for that tell-tale rash which doesn’t disappear when you hold a glass down on it, but there are many more symptoms of the illness that parents know little about.

To mark World Meningitis Day (October 5), the Meningitis Research Foundation is urging parents to learn about the other symptoms of meningitis, as well as the signs of septicaemia.

The two are different issues, but can also be closely interlinked. While meningitis is inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord, septicaemia (or sepsis) is blood poisoning which can be caused by the same bacteria as meningitis overwhelming the bloodstream.

This means that children with meningitis might also be fighting sepsis at the same time, resulting in a mixture of symptoms – and both can be life-threatening.

A YouGov poll by the Meningitis Research Foundation found just 5% of parents can identify all the symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia, prompting the charity to warn the illnesses are “more than just a rash”.

Symptoms of meningitis are:

  • Fever and/or vomiting,
  • Severe headache,
  • Rash,
  • Stiff neck,
  • Dislike of bright lights,
  • Very sleepy, vacant or difficult to wake,
  • Confused or delirious,
  • Having seizures.

Symptoms of septicaemia are:

  • Fever and/or vomiting,
  • Limb, joint or muscle pain (sometimes with stomach pain and diarrhoea),
  • Cold hands and feet,
  • Shivering,
  • Pale or mottled skin,
  • Breathing fast or breathless,
  • Rash,
  • Very sleepy, vacant or difficult to wake,
  • Confused or delirious.

According to the health charity, the first symptoms are usually fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell – all symptoms that are associated with milder ailments.

Limb pain, pale skin, and cold hands and feet often appear earlier than the more well-known symptoms like a rash, neck stiffness, and a dislike of bright lights, the charity added.

The survey of 1,300 UK-based parents found twice as many mums (69%) as dads (33%) were able to recognise at least half of the symptoms of the diseases.

Rash was the most recognised symptom, followed by a dislike of bright lights, stiff neck and severe headache.

However, symptoms more typically associated with sepsis – such as cold hands and feet/shivering, breathing fast/breathlessness, and pale and mottled skin – had the lowest levels of awareness.

Symptoms of these illnesses are hard to distinguish from other mild illnesses such as flu, particularly in the early stages, which makes them difficult to detect.

But both meningitis and septicaemia can result in life-changing disability, and in the very worst cases, death. Those at greatest risk are children under five, followed by teenagers and young adults.

If you – or your child – has any of the above symptoms, it’s important to seek urgent medical treatment. This is because the illnesses can progress to life-threatening within a matter of hours.

Claire Wright, head of evidence and policy at Meningitis Research Foundation, urged parents to be vigilant of symptoms and to trust their instincts and seek immediate help if they think something is wrong with their child.

“Every day we support people who are coping with the life-changing impact of meningitis and septicaemia, from deafness, to limb loss, to epilepsy or long-term memory issues,” she said.

“Yet the bacteria that trigger these illnesses can be defeated in our lifetime through better vaccine development, availability and uptake, improved diagnostic tests and through knowing when to get medical help.”

She urged parents to remember “meningitis and septicaemia are more than just a rash – which doesn’t always appear”.

“This poll tells us that not enough parents are aware of some of the other signs to look out for. We want to change that, so more lives can be saved, whilst also reminding parents to always trust their instincts and get medical help fast if they have any concerns.”