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.

This page covers:

Symptoms of meningitis

When to get medical help

How meningitis is spread

Vaccinations against meningitis

Treatments for meningitis

Outlook for meningitis

Symptoms of meningitis

Symptoms of meningitis develop suddenly and can include:

  • a high temperature (fever) over 37.5C (99.5F)
  • being sick
  • headache
  • a blotchy rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over it (this won't always develop)
  • stiff neck
  • a dislike of bright lights
  • drowsiness or unresponsiveness
  • seizures (fits) 

These symptoms can appear in any order and some may not appear.

Read 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 don't wait until a rash develops.

Call 999 for an ambulance or go to your nearest accident and emergency (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 aren't ill themselves.

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

Read more about the causes of meningitis.

Vaccinations against meningitis

Vaccinations offer some protection against certain causes of meningitis.

These include the:

  • meningitis B vaccine – offered to babies aged 8 weeks, followed by a second dose at 16 weeks, and a booster at 1 year
  • 5-in-1 vaccine – offered to babies at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age
  • pneumococcal vaccine – offered to babies at 8 weeks, 16 weeks and 1 year old
  • meningitis C vaccine – offered at 12 weeks of age, 1 year, and to teenagers and first-time university students
  • MMR vaccine – offered to babies at 1 year and a second dose at 3 years and 4 months
  • meningitis ACWY vaccine – offered to teenagers, sixth formers and "fresher" students going to university for the first time

Read 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.

Read 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:

  • hearing loss or vision loss, which may be partial or total
  • problems with memory and concentration
  • recurrent seizures (epilepsy)
  • co-ordination, movement and balance problems
  • loss of limbs – amputation of affected limbs is sometimes necessary

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

Read more about the complications of meningitis.

Page last reviewed: 12/04/2016

Next review due: 01/04/2019