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Meningitis

Read about meningitis, an infection of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Find out about the symptoms, vaccines and treatments.

12 March 2019

Introduction

Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord (meninges).

It can affect anyone, but is most common in babies, young children, teenagers and young adults.

Meningitis can be very serious if not treated quickly.

It can cause life-threatening blood poisoning (septicaemia) ↗ and result in permanent damage to the brain or nerves.

A number of vaccinations are available that offer some protection against meningitis.

Symptoms of meningitis

Symptoms of meningitis develop suddenly and can include:

  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • being sick
  • headache ↗
  • a rash that does not fade when a glass is rolled over it (but this will not always develop)
  • stiff neck ↗
  • a dislike of bright lights
  • drowsiness or unresponsiveness
  • fits (seizures) 

These symptoms can appear in any order. You do not always get all the symptoms.

Find out more about the symptoms of meningitis ↗

When to get medical help

You should get medical advice as soon as possible if you're concerned that you or your child could have meningitis.

Trust your instincts and do not wait until a rash develops.

Call 999 for an ambulance or go to your nearest A&E department ↗ immediately if you think you or your child might be seriously ill.

Call NHS 111 ↗ or your GP surgery for advice if you're not sure if it's anything serious or you think you may have been exposed to someone with meningitis.

How meningitis is spread

Meningitis is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection.

Bacterial meningitis is rarer but more serious than viral meningitis.

Infections that cause meningitis can be spread through:

  • sneezing
  • coughing ↗
  • kissing
  • sharing utensils, cutlery and toothbrushes

Meningitis is usually caught from people who carry these viruses or bacteria in their nose or throat but are not ill themselves.

It can also be caught from someone with meningitis, but this is less common.

Find out more about what causes meningitis ↗

Vaccinations against meningitis

Vaccinations offer some protection against certain causes of meningitis.

These include the:

Find out more about meningitis vaccinations ↗

Treatments for meningitis

People with suspected meningitis will usually have tests in hospital to confirm the diagnosis and check whether the condition is the result of a viral or bacterial infection.

Bacterial meningitis usually needs to be treated in hospital for at least a week.

Treatments include:

  • antibiotics ↗ given directly into a vein
  • fluids given directly into a vein
  • oxygen through a face mask

Viral meningitis tends to get better on its own within 7 to 10 days and can often be treated at home.

Getting plenty of rest and taking painkillers and anti-sickness medication can help relieve the symptoms in the meantime.

Find out more about how meningitis is treated ↗

Outlook for meningitis 

Viral meningitis will usually get better on its own and rarely causes any long-term problems.

Most people with bacterial meningitis who are treated quickly will also make a full recovery, although some are left with serious long-term problems.

These can include:

Overall, it's estimated up to 1 in every 10 cases of bacterial meningitis is fatal.

Find out more about the complications of meningitis ↗