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Meningitis is an inflammation of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord that 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 a range of viruses and 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 particular treatment available for viral meningitis, 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. A particularly worrying type of bacterial meningitis is meningococcal meningitis. 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 Neisseria meningitidis (also known as meningococcal bacteria).

The symptoms of meningitis in babies and young children include: fever, food refusal, fretfulness, drowsiness, purple-red skin rash or bruising, 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 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 critical stage of the disease.

If you are worried that you or someone you care for may have meningitis, see your doctor immediately. If your doctor is not available, go to your nearest emergency department.

Last reviewed: November 2016

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