Meningitis is an inflammation of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It is commonly caused by an infection. Meningitis can be a life-threatening illness so urgent medical treatment is needed.
What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges. The meninges are the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
The most common symptoms of meningitis are fever, headache, vomiting, loss of appetite, tiredness, drowsiness or altered consciousness, irritability, stiff neck and sensitivity to light. Some people with meningitis can have seizures. Some people find their hearing or vision are affected.
Meningitis is caused by viruses or bacteria. Very occasionally, it’s caused by a fungus or parasite. It’s usually spread from person to person through close contact, such as coughing, sneezing, kissing or sharing personal items.
Treatment and recovery
The two main types of meningitis are viral and bacterial meningitis.
There is no treatment for viral meningitis other than controlling symptoms such as headache, which can be severe, and most people make a rapid and full recovery with rest and extra fluids.
Bacterial meningitis is usually more severe and often requires treatment in hospital with intravenous antibiotics. It can be life-threatening without treatment — see below.
Recovery from bacterial meningitis can take a long time, and occasionally can lead to long-term problems, such as hearing loss or brain damage.
Meningitis and meningococcal disease
Meningococcal disease is caused by a bacteria called meningococcus. It can cause meningitis as well as infections of the blood and other parts of the body.
The symptoms of meningococcal disease in babies and young children include: fever, food refusal, fretfulness, drowsiness, purple-red skin rash or bruising skin rash that does not turn skin-coloured when you press on it with a finger or the side of a clear drinking glass, high moaning cry, light sensitivity and pale or blotchy skin.
Symptoms in older children and adults include; headache, fever, vomiting, neck stiffness and joint pains, drowsiness and confusion, purple-red skin rash or bruising that does not turn skin-coloured when you press on it with a finger or the side of a clear drinking glass, and light sensitivity.
Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency. It can kill within hours, so early diagnosis and treatment is vital. Do not wait for the purple rash to appear as that is a late stage of the disease.
If you are worried that you or someone you care for may have meningitis or meningococcal disease, see your doctor immediately or go to your nearest Emergency Department.
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Last reviewed: September 2018