Meningitis is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection.

Viral meningitis is the most common and least serious type. Bacterial meningitis is rare but can be very serious if not treated.

Several different viruses and bacteria can cause meningitis, including:

A number of meningitis vaccinations provide protection against many of the infections that can cause meningitis.

How meningitis is spread

The viruses and bacteria that cause meningitis can be spread through:

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

The infection is usually spread by people who carry these viruses or bacteria in their nose or throat, but aren't ill themselves.

The infection can also be spread by someone with meningitis, although this is less common.

It is possible to get meningitis more than once.

Who's most at risk?

Anyone can potentially get meningitis, but it's more common in:

  • babies and young children
  • teenagers and young adults
  • elderly people
  • people with a weak immune system – for example, those with HIV and those having chemotherapy

You can reduce the risk of getting meningitis by ensuring all your vaccinations are up-to-date.

Read more about meningitis vaccinations.

Page last reviewed: 12/04/2016

Next review due: 12/04/2018