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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.

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.


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Meningitis

Read about the main symptoms of meningitis, including the meningitis rash, and find out when and where to get medical advice if you have any concerns.

A classic symptom of meningitis is a blotchy rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over it, but this doesn't appear in many cases.

You should get medical advice as soon as possible if you're concerned about yourself or your child. 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 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.

Meningitis rash

The classic rash associated with meningitis usually looks like small, red pinpricks at first.

It then spreads over the body quickly and turns into red or purple blotches.

If you press the side of a clear glass firmly against the skin and the rash doesn't fade, it's a sign of blood poisoning (septicaemia) caused by meningitis and you should get medical advice right away.

The rash can be harder to see on dark skin. Check for spots on paler areas like the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, the tummy, inside the eyelids, and the roof of the mouth.

Other symptoms of meningitis

Meningitis can have a number of other symptoms, too, including:

  • a high temperature (fever) over 37.5C (99.5F)
  • feeling and being sick
  • irritability and a lack of energy
  • headache
  • aching muscles and joints
  • breathing quickly
  • cold hands and feet
  • pale, mottled skin
  • stiff neck
  • confusion
  • a dislike of bright lights
  • drowsiness
  • fits (seizures) 

Babies may also:

  • refuse feeds
  • be agitated and not want to be picked up
  • have a bulging soft spot on their head (fontanelle)
  • be floppy or unresponsive
  • have an unusual high-pitched cry
  • have a stiff body

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

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Meningitis

Read about the main causes of meningitis and how the infection is spread.

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.

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Meningitis

Read about how meningitis is treated, including what tests may be needed and whether treatment is hospital will be necessary.

People with suspected meningitis will usually need to have tests in hospital and may need to stay in hospital for treatment.

Tests in hospital

Several tests may be carried out to confirm the diagnosis and check whether the condition is the result of a viral or bacterial infection.

These tests may include:

As bacterial meningitis can be very serious, treatment with antibiotics will usually start before the diagnosis is confirmed and will be stopped later on if tests show the condition is being caused by a virus.

Treatment in hospital

Treatment in hospital is recommended in all cases of bacterial meningitis, as the condition can cause serious problems and requires close monitoring.

Severe viral meningitis may also be treated in hospital.

Treatments include:

  • antibiotics given directly into a vein
  • fluids given directly into a vein to prevent dehydration
  • oxygen through a face mask if there are any breathing difficulties
  • steroid medication to help reduce any swelling around the brain, in some cases

People with meningitis may need to stay in hospital for a few days, and in certain cases, treatment may be needed for several weeks.

Even after going home, it may be a while before you feel completely back to normal.

Additional treatment and long-term support may also be required if any complications of meningitis occur, such as hearing loss.

Treatment at home

You'll usually be able to go home from hospital if you or your child has mild meningitis and tests show it's being caused by a viral infection.

This type of meningitis will normally get better on its own without causing any serious problems. Most people feel better within 7-10 days.

In the meantime, it can help to:

  • get plenty of rest
  • take painkillers for a headache or general aches
  • take anti-emetic (anti-sickness) medicine for any vomiting

Preventing the spread of infection

The risk of someone with meningitis spreading the infection to others is generally low. But if someone is thought to be at high risk of infection, they may be given a dose of antibiotics as a precautionary measure.

This may include anyone who has been in prolonged close contact with someone who developed meningitis, such as:

  • people living in the same house
  • pupils sharing a dormitory
  • university students sharing a hall of residence
  • a boyfriend or girlfriend

People who have only had brief contact with someone who developed meningitis won't usually need to take antibiotics.

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Meningitis

Read about the main risks associated with meningitis, including hearing loss, loss of limbs, and problems with memory or concentration.

Most people make a full recovery from meningitis, but it can sometimes cause serious, long-term problems and can be life threatening.

This is why it's so important to get medical help as soon as possible if you think you or your child has symptoms of meningitis, and why meningitis vaccinations are offered to certain groups.

It's estimated up to one person in every two or three who survives bacterial meningitis is left with one or more permanent problems.

Complications are much rarer after viral meningitis.

Main complications

Some of the most common complications associated with meningitis are:

  • hearing loss, which may be partial or total – people who have had meningitis will usually have a hearing test after a few weeks to check for any problems
  • recurrent seizures (epilepsy)
  • problems with memory and concentration
  • co-ordination, movement and balance problems
  • learning difficulties and behavioural problems
  • vision loss, which may be partial or total
  • loss of limbs – amputation is sometimes necessary to stop the infection spreading through the body and remove damaged tissue
  • bone and joint problems, such as arthritis
  • kidney problems

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

Treatment and support

Additional treatment and long-term support may be required if you or your child experience complications of meningitis.

For example:

  • cochlear implants, which are small devices that are inserted into the ears to improve hearing, may be needed in cases of severe hearing loss – read more about treatment for hearing loss
  • prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation support may help if it was necessary to amputate any limbs – read more about recovering after an amputation
  • counselling and psychological support may help if the trauma of having meningitis causes problems such as disturbed sleep, bedwetting, or fear of doctors and hospitals

You may also find it useful to get in touch with organisations such as the Meningitis Research Foundation or Meningitis Now for support and advice about life after meningitis.

The Meningitis Research Foundation's guide to recovering from childhood bacterial meningitis and septicaemia (PDF, 6.73Mb) has more information about meningitis after effects and aftercare.

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Meningitis

Read about the different vaccines that can help prevent meningitis and when they're usually given.

Meningitis can be caused by a number of different infections, so several vaccinations offer some protection against it.

Children should receive most of these as part of the NHS vaccination schedule. Speak to your GP if you're not sure whether your or your child's vaccinations are up-to-date.

Meningitis B vaccine

The meningitis B vaccine is a new vaccine that offers protection against meningococcal group B bacteria, which are a common cause of meningitis in young children in the UK.

The vaccine is recommended for babies aged eight weeks, followed by a second dose at 16 weeks, and a booster at one year.

Read more about the meningitis B vaccine.

5-in-1 vaccine

The 5-in-1 vaccine, also known as the DTaP/IPV/Hib vaccine, offers protection against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).

Hib are a type of bacteria that can cause meningitis.

The vaccine is given on three separate occasions, when babies are 8, 12 and 16 weeks old.

Read more about the 5-in-1 vaccine.

Pneumococcal vaccine

The pneumococcal vaccine offers protection against serious infections caused by pneumococcal bacteria, including meningitis.

Babies receive the pneumococcal vaccine as three separate injections, at 8 weeks, 16 weeks and one year old.

Read more about the pneumococcal vaccine.

Meningitis C vaccine

The meningitis C vaccine offers protection against a type of bacteria that can cause meningitis called meningococcal group C bacteria.

Babies are routinely offered the meningitis C vaccine at 12 weeks of age. A second dose is given at one year in the combined Hib/Men C booster vaccine.

Teenagers and first-time university students are also offered vaccination against meningococcal group C bacteria as part of the combined meningitis ACWY vaccine (see below).

Read more about the meningitis C vaccine.

MMR vaccine

The MMR vaccine offers protection against measlesmumps and rubella. Meningitis can sometimes occur as a complication of these infections.

The vaccine is usually given to babies at one year of age. They'll then have a second dose when they're three years and four months old.

Read more about the MMR vaccine.

Meningitis ACWY vaccine

The meningitis ACWY vaccines offers protection against four types of bacteria that can cause meningitis – meningococcal groups A, C, W and Y.

Young teenagers, sixth formers and "fresher" students going to university for the first time are advised to have the vaccination.

Read more about the meningitis ACWY vaccine.

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Meningitis

Read the story of Tracey Chambers, whose daughter Courtney was diagnosed with meningitis septicaemia.

Tracey Chambers' daughter, Courtney, was diagnosed with meningitis septicaemia. She talks about the short-term and long-term effects of Courtney's illness.

"Courtney woke me at 2am saying she had a pain in her left arm. I rubbed it and told her to go back to bed, but 10 minutes later she was moaning that her neck hurt. As I went to touch her, I realised she was burning up.

"I gave her some medicine, but she vomited immediately. Her hands and feet were ice cold to the extent that I wrapped her feet in a dressing gown and covered them with a duvet, but I could still feel the cold through them.

"Courtney was saying she wanted to die because everywhere hurt so much. She kept being sick and her hearing was unusually acute. I knew that something was really wrong.

"She had a spot in the middle of her tummy, so I phoned NHS Direct. I was told to do the tumbler test over the spot, and when it didn't disappear I called an ambulance." [NHS Direct has been replaced by NHS 111.] 

"Later on, Courtney had a headache, stiff neck and she was talking rubbish. She wasn't making any sense, and she was showing all the classic signs of meningitis.

"After she got out of hospital, the Meningitis Research Foundation helpline told me everything I needed to know. They were brilliant and my saviour for about 2.5 years. They gave me any help that I needed.

"Courtney's condition didn't just suddenly improve after two weeks. It still affects her now, years afterwards. My main worry was that she'd never walk again, because for some unknown reason she couldn't walk.

"The doctors had to keep her leg in a particular position and plaster it, then take the plaster off and put her leg in a different position and replaster it. This was followed by intensive hydrotherapy.

"Her behaviour also got worse. She knew what she was doing was wrong, but couldn't help herself. She still sees a counsellor to help with her anxiety.

"She has irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), too, and if she's stressed it really flares up. She's got a fear of death and thinks she's ill all the time when she's not. She needs constant reassurance. Her therapist is helping her with that.

"For all the problems though, it's amazing how far she's come – from intensive care to running around playing football. She doesn't sit still  she loves activity and just loves life."

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Meningitis

Read the story of Mary Baron and her grandson Kyle, who developed bacterial meningitis during a holiday in Tenerife.

Mary Baron and her family were enjoying a holiday in Tenerife when tragedy struck  her grandson, Kyle, caught bacterial meningitis.

"We'd been out for our evening meal when Kyle seemed to become unwell. We decided to return to our apartment so we could put him to bed. 

"During the night Kyle was moaning. He had a high temperature and he'd been sick. I was worried he might have meningitis, so I checked his body for a rash. He didn't have one. I gave him some Calpol and put him back to bed.

"By the morning, Kyle was delirious. We called a doctor, who immediately suspected meningitis and ordered an ambulance. It wasn't until Kyle arrived at the hospital that the rash  which I knew was one of the signs of meningitis  began to appear.

"In hospital, we were deeply distressed when we were told that Kyle had as little as a 1% chance of surviving. They told us to prepare for the worst. Unless you've been in that situation yourself, you just can't understand how desperate it feels to be told your child or grandchild is probably going to die.

"Thankfully, Kyle proved the doctors wrong, and against all the odds he carried on fighting the disease, which raged through his body. Six weeks later, Kyle flew back from Tenerife to Sheffield Children's Hospital in an air ambulance. There, the doctors decided that to save Kyle's life, all four of his limbs needed to be amputated.

"The operation was a success and Kyle's condition began to improve. A few months later, he was allowed to go home to begin the long recuperation.

"Kyle now attends a special school in Sheffield. People are amazed by him and how positive he is. He's a normal young boy who likes doing things that all other young boys do, such as watching football, playing video games and spending time with his friends.

"Kyle is an upbeat, positive and loving lad. He's got a great personality, and he wants to be a comedian when he grows up. I hope he'll succeed in that, because he's already an inspiration to me and to everyone who meets him."

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