Meningitis – knowing what to look for, acting fast
Simply mention the word ‘meningitis’ and many parents will admit that it is probably one of their worst nightmares. While modern meningitis vaccinations offer excellent protection, unfortunately, they aren’t able to safeguard against every form of meningitis and septicaemia. With the devastating effects of meningitis periodically hitting the news headlines, the campaign to make parents more aware of meningitis, including Meningitis Baby Watch, has become a priority. Meningitis and septicaemia (the blood poisoning form of the disease) are very dangerous infections that have the potential to kill in a matter of hours. It is therefore very important to know about the early signs and symptoms to look out for, so that you can recognise any causes for concern and act quickly to safeguard your infant’s health and well-being.
So what is meningitis?
Meningitis refers to the swelling of the membranes (the tissue lining) that surround the brain and the spinal cord. The term septicaemia refers to the blood poisoning that arises from the same germs that cause meningitis; these two infections can occur simultaneously or arise separately. Meningitis and septicaemia can be difficult to detect because they often present like any number of mild illnesses; it is also very difficult for your baby/young child to be able to tell you how they are feeling. The concern is that babies can become very ill extremely quickly, so they need to be monitored very closely and frequently. Never take any chances and listen to your instincts; if your baby seems to be rapidly getting worse, access medical help immediately, either through an on-call GP service, or by taking your baby to the nearest Accident & Emergency (A&E) department. It does not matter if this turns out to be a false alarm; all medical staff know that there can never be too many false alarms if just one life is saved.
What are the signs and symptoms to look out for?
Symptoms can present in any order, but the very first symptoms tend to include: feeling unwell, headache, fever and vomiting. However, although the following symptoms are associated with meningitis and/or septicaemia infections, not every baby will display all of the symptoms that are listed here:
- Your baby may not be vomiting, but could be off their food and/or reluctant to feed; they may also have diarrhoea.
- Your baby may also be very sleepy, difficult to wake, or may have a ‘staring’ expression.
- You might also notice that your baby is breathing more rapidly than normal, or if they are more ill, they could be having difficulty with their breathing.
- A fever (high temperature) is also a common symptom, so while your baby may feel hot, they may also be shivering very noticeably.
- The fontanelle (soft spot) on baby’s head may be tense or bulging.
- Your baby may also have hands and feet that are noticeably cold to the touch.
- Your baby’s skin may be pale and ‘blotchy’, and could be getting paler or even becoming a more ‘blue’ colour.
- You may notice that your baby is more irritable than usual and doesn’t want to be touched or cuddled. This is often caused by aching muscles and/or severe limb/joint pains.
- Your baby may have a high pitched or moaning cry, which may be more evident when you pick them up.
- Your baby may be floppy and appear lifeless, or you may notice that your baby’s body is being held stiffly with jerking movements, which might mean they are having a ‘fit’ (seizure).
- Your baby may have tiny red or brown ‘pin prick’ marks (a rash) or purple blotches/bruises all over their body and limbs. Sometimes these can develop into blood blisters.
These rashes can be more difficult to spot on dark/black skin, so it is important to check all over your baby’s body, particularly, paler areas like the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet. You may also notice spots on the roof of their mouth, on the insides of their eyelids and on their abdomen (tummy).
If you notice a rash on your baby always do the ‘Glass Tumbler Test’:
This is where you press a clear glass tumbler (or small bowl) against the surface of your child’s skin and the rash does not disappear; this indicates a septicaemia rash. You will be able to still see the rash through the glass and where this is the case, it is imperative that you seek urgent medical assistance without delay. A baby that has become very poorly very quickly will need medical attention even when they have only a handful of spots, a rash that fades, or no rash whatsoever. So, always be vigilant: it is far better to err on the side of caution with any baby and young child.
For additional information about meningitis and septicaemia, contact the Meningitis Research Foundation’s 24 hour Freephone Helpline:
Tel: 080 8800 3344 (UK) OR Tel: 1800 41 33 44 (Republic of Ireland)