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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 2 minutes read

The brain and spinal cord are surrounded by meninges, these are protective membranes. When these become infected it is called meningitis.  It is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection and is most common amongst younger children, young adults, older people and those with a weak immune system. Meningitis can spread through kissing, coughing and sneezing. It can be life-threatening and can lead to permanent damage to the brain or nerves. Thankfully, vaccinations are available that offer some protection against meningitis.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

Symptoms of meningitis can occur rapidly and they can include some, but not all of the following symptoms:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Discomfort with bright lights
  • Neck stiffness
  • Rash that doesn't go away when the bottom of a glass is rolled over it 
  • Drowsiness 
  • Lack of consciousness
  • Seizures 

Meningitis is typically caused by a bacterial or viral illness. The bacterial illness is not as common but tends to be more serious than the viral illness. 

What about the vaccinations?

There are vaccinations against meningococcal disease. Being up to date with them will offer you increased protection.

  • Meningitis B vaccine - one dose aged 16-18 years
  • Meningitis ACWY vaccine- first dose at 11-12 years, second dose at age 16 years

It is also important to ensure that your child is up-to-date with vaccinations recommended in the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) childhood vaccination program, starting as an infant.

How is meningitis treated?

If meningitis is suspected you should speak to a healthcare professional urgently. If your child is very unwell, call an ambulance or go to your nearest emergency department. The sooner treatment is given the better.

At the hospital, the doctors will conduct different tests to confirm the presence of meningitis. Viral infection is usually able to be treated at home and improves after a week or so. Bacterial infection, although rarer, is more severe, and needs to be treated in the hospital. Treatments may include fluid and antibiotics through the vein and oxygen through a mask.

Are there any complications?

Severe infections with bacterial meningitis can lead to complications in some people.

This can be problems with focus and memory, ongoing seizures or fits, difficulties with balance and movement, loss of hearing or vision, and in very severe circumstances loss of limb function. On average, 1 in every 10 cases of bacterial meningitis can be deadly which is why it is so important to seek help quickly if you suspect it.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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