Meningitis and sepsis: what you need to know

Many people may realise sepsis and meningitis are serious conditions. But how are these illnesses linked, and what else should you know about them?

According to Emma Hammett of First Aid for Life, there are currently more than 3,000 cases of meningitis and sepsis every year in the UK – and the effects are devastating. And while anybody of any age can contract meningitis and sepsis, babies and toddlers account for around half of all cases. And along with teenagers, babies and toddlers are often particularly at risk.

“Meningitis is swelling of the meninges – the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord – that results from either a bacterial or viral infection. Sepsis or septicaemia is blood poisoning and the body’s over-reaction to the infection,” explains Emma.

Meningitis caused by a virus can be very unpleasant, but it’s rarely life threatening and most people make a full recovery. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, is more serious and can be caused by a wide range of different bacteria.

Sepsis is a common and potentially life-threatening condition triggered by an infection or injury that causes a form of blood poisoning. When this happens, the body’s immune system can overreact, which can cause widespread inflammation, swelling and blood clots. Your blood pressure can drop dramatically, causing your body to go into septic shock. This can interrupt the blood supply to vital organs such as your brain, heart and kidneys.

Sepsis should be treated quickly and aggressively in hospital, and is sadly often responsible for numerous amputations, brain damage and deaths.


Learn to spot the signs

Emma adds that it can be hard to recognise meningitis at first, as the early symptoms are similar to those of flu and other common illnesses. However, here are the key signs to look out for in babies and young children:

  • High temperature (particularly with cold hands and feet)
  • Vomiting and refusing to feed
  • Headache
  • Raised or bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on a baby’s head)
  • Pale, mottled skin
  • Red rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it
  • Drowsiness, floppiness, lifelessness
  • Stiffness with jerky movements
  • Agitation, not wanting to be held or touched
  • High pitched or moaning cry
  • Grunting or rapid breathing
  • Stiff neck
  • Aversion to bright lights
  • Convulsions or seizures

Meanwhile, older children, teenagers and adults may be affected by one or more of the following meningitis symptoms:

  • High temperature (particularly with cold hands and feet)
  • Vomiting
  • Headache (severe)
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion and irritability
  • Pale, mottled skin
  • Distinctive rash
  • Muscle pain
  • Stiff neck)
  • Aversion to light
  • Convulsions or seizures

It’s also worth remembering that not all of these symptoms have to appear, and that they can appear in any order.

The early symptoms of sepsis, on the other hand, include a fever or low body temperature, chills, shivering, rapid heartbeat and breathing. These can soon be followed by dizziness, confusion, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, severe muscle pain, breathlessness, pale or mottled skin that’s cold and clammy, and loss of consciousness.

If you notice any of these symptoms, particularly in a young child, it’s important to get medical help quickly, even if you think the symptoms might be caused by something less serious (see your GP, call NHS 111 or go to your nearest hospital’s A&E department). It’s also worth bearing in mind that not everyone who has meningitis gets a rash, so don’t wait to see if one appears.


Has your child been vaccinated?

There are a number of vaccines available on the NHS that can prevent many types of viral and bacterial meningitis, so it’s important to make sure your child is up to date with their jabs.

Babies are routinely vaccinated against meningitis C at the age of three months. And young teenagers, sixth formers and students going to university are also being advised to ask their GPs for a jab to protect against meningitis ACW and Y, since cases of meningitis due to meningitis W have been steadily increasing over the last few years.

However, the most common cause of meningitis is meningitis B, and a vaccine is now being used as part of the NHS childhood vaccination schedule. This is recommended for babies aged two months and again at four months, followed by a booster at 12 months. Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK have recently signed an online petition for the meningitis B vaccine to be available to all children, not just babies. To find out more (and to sign the petition), visit

Finally, it’s important to remember that these vaccines don’t cover all strains of the disease, so it’s worth learning how to spot the symptoms of meningitis as early as possible.

If you want to find out more about meningitis and sepsis, ask your local Careway pharmacist for advice. Pharmacists are highly trained health professionals, and in most cases you won’t need an appointment to speak to one in confidence.


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