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 develop suddenly and can include:
These symptoms can appear in any order and some may not appear.
Read more about the symptoms of meningitis .
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 for an ambulance or go to your nearest emergency department immediately if you think you or your child might be seriously ill.
Call your doctor for advice if you're not sure if it's anything serious or you think you may have been exposed to someone with meningitis.
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:
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 offer some protection against certain causes of meningitis.
These include the:
Read more about meningitis vaccinations .
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:
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 .
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 that up to 1 in every 10 cases of bacterial meningitis is fatal.
Read more about the complications of meningitis .
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 for an ambulance or go to your nearest emergency department if you think you or your child might be seriously ill.
Call your doctor for advice if you're not sure if it's anything serious.
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.
Meningitis can have a number of other symptoms, too, including:
Babies may also:
These symptoms can develop in any order and some may not appear.
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.
The viruses and bacteria that cause meningitis can be spread through:
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.
Anyone can potentially get meningitis, but it's more common in:
You can reduce the risk of getting meningitis by ensuring all your vaccinations are up-to-date.
Read more about meningitis vaccinations .
People with suspected meningitis will usually need to have tests in hospital and may need to stay in hospital for treatment.
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 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.
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.
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:
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 who have only had brief contact with someone who developed meningitis won't usually need to take antibiotics.
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 doctor if you're not sure whether your or your child's vaccinations are up-to-date.
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 .
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 .
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 .
The meningitis C vaccine offers protection against a type of bacteria - meningococcal group C bacteria - that can cause meningitis.
Babies are offered a combined Hib/Men C vaccine at one year of age.
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).
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 .
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 .
Most people make a full recovery from meningitis, but it can sometimes cause serious, long-term problems and can be life threatening.
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.
Some of the most common complications associated with meningitis are:
Overall, it's estimated up to 1 in every 10 cases of bacterial meningitis is fatal.
Additional treatment and long-term support may be required if you or your child experience complications of meningitis.
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.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.