What you need to know

  • Meningitis is serious and can lead to permanent brain damage.
  • Symptoms can include fever, vomiting, headache, and a rash, but symptoms can vary and often won't appear at the same time.
  • If you think your child has meningitis, don't wait. Take them to a doctor immediately.
  • Vaccines can help protect your child from meningitis, talk to your Plunket nurse, other Well Child provider or doctor about immunisation.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meninges) that can in some cases, lead to permanent damage like deafness or brain damage.

Meningitis can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or other micro-organisms. The bacteria viruses can be spread through close contact such as:

  • living in the same household 
  • coughing and sneezing 
  • kissing 
  • sharing food and drink. 

Children under five years old and young adults are most at risk. 


Not all symptoms will show at once. If you think your child may have meningitis don’t wait, take them to the doctor immediately.  

Symptoms include:

  • Fever (may also have cool hands and feet, or shivering) 
  • Unsettled or crying (may be a high – pitched or moaning cry)   
  • Irritable  
  • Refuse to feed or drink 
  • Vomiting
  • Sleepy, floppy, or harder to wake 
  • Dislike bright lights 
  • Stiff neck 
  • Headache  
  • Rash red or purple spots or bruises on the skin.

Even one spot is important. Spots can later be a sign of meningitis, although spots don’t show in all meningitis cases – so don’t wait for a rash to appear before calling a doctor.

Meningococcal disease symptoms


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If your child has any symptoms of meningitis act immediately, as babies and children can get sick very quickly. 

What to do if your child has symptoms

  • Call your doctor, an after-hours medical centre or PlunketLine.  
  • Insist on immediate action – your child’s life may be at risk. 
  • Watch your child, even if they have already been checked by a doctor and ask your doctor what symptoms to watch for. 
  • Go straight back to a doctor if your child gets worse. 
  • Do not leave your child alone. 
  • If it is an emergency, call 111 and ask for an ambulance and describe you child's symptoms.


Vaccines can protect against meningitis, including those targeting meningococcal, pneumococcal, and hemophilic influenzae type b (Hib) infections. Talk to your doctor or review the New Zealand Immunisation Schedule for more information.


New Zealand Immunisation Schedule

Ministry of Health

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The Government's principal advisor on health and disability: improving, promoting and protecting the health of New Zealanders.