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Meningitis

7-minute read

Meningitis can be a medical emergency. It can kill within hours, so early diagnosis and treatment is vital. 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 or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is a rare but serious infection of the meninges. The meninges are the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is usually caused by a virus or bacteria.

Viral meningitis usually causes a less dangerous form of meningitis and most commonly affects children. It can cause severe headaches. Viral meningitis is usually caused by enteroviruses, which live in fluids in the mouth and nose, and in faeces (poo).

Bacterial meningitis is usually more severe. It’s caused mainly by meningococcus or pneumococcus bacteria. These bacteria live in the nose and throat and are usually harmless. But they can enter the blood stream and spread to the membrane surrounding the brain, causing meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency. It can kill within hours, so early diagnosis and treatment is vital.

When should I call an ambulance?

Call an ambulance or go straight to the emergency department if you or a child is showing symptoms of meningococcal infection:

  • a high fever with a severe headache
  • stiffness and pain in the neck
  • dislike of bright lights
  • and a skin rash of red or purple spots that don’t turn white when you press on them with a finger.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

The symptoms of meningitis in very small children and babies include:

  • fever
  • a bulge in the soft spot on top the head (the fontanelle)
  • unusual or high-pitched crying
  • inactivity or floppiness
  • irritability
  • feeding problems
  • holding their head back and arching their back
  • being difficult to wake
  • purple-red skin rash or bruising
  • pale or blotchy skin
  • seizures (fits)

The most common symptoms of meningitis in older children and adults are:

  • fever
  • very bad headache and stiff or sore neck
  • nausea or vomiting and loss of appetite
  • tiredness and drowsiness
  • irritability
  • confusion
  • purple-red skin rash or bruising
  • discomfort looking at bright lights (photophobia)
  • muscle and joint pains
  • seizures (fits)

The signs and symptoms do not appear in a definite order and some may not appear at all.

This symptoms list does not include every possible sign and symptom of meningitis.

What causes meningitis?

The viruses or bacteria that cause meningitis are usually spread from person to person through close contact, such as coughing, sneezing, kissing and sharing personal items.

Meningitis can be a complication of another illness like mumps, measles, chickenpox and Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib). These diseases are now rare due to immunisation.

Meningitis can also be a result of meningococcal disease. This is caused by a bacteria called meningococcus. It can also cause 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.

How is meningitis diagnosed?

Meningitis is diagnosed with a lumbar puncture. This involves putting a needle into the base of the spine to take a sample of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spine. The fluid is examined to see what type of infection has caused the meningitis.

Blood tests will also be ordered

How is meningitis treated?

People with meningitis will usually be admitted to hospital, although some people with viral meningitis can be cared for at home with close medical supervision.

Treatment will depend on the type of infection that has caused the meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency and can be fatal if not treated quickly. If bacterial meningitis is diagnosed, antibiotics (often injectable or intravenous) will be used. They may be given for up to 3 weeks. Other medicines such as corticosteroids may also be given to help reduce the risk of complications, such as brain swelling or seizures.

People in close contact are sometimes given antibiotics to reduce their risk of developing the illness.

Viral meningitis

There is no specific treatment for viral meningitis and patients usually get better with plenty of rest and fluids alone. Paracetamol can be used to ease any symptoms of headache and fever. Children with viral meningitis should stay home from school or day care until they feel well.

Viral meningitis is not treated with antibiotics because antibiotics are not effective against viral illnesses.

Fungal meningitis

Meningitis that’s caused by a fungus is treated with intravenous and oral anti-fungal medicine.

Can meningitis be prevented?

There is a lower risk of catching viral or bacterial infections if you follow good hygiene.

  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Don’t share drink bottles, cups or cutlery.
  • Sneeze into your elbow.
  • Through tissues into the bin straight after use and wash your hands.

Several of the viruses and bacteria that cause meningitis can be largely prevented by the routine childhood immunisation, so staying up to date with childhood vaccinations is the best way to prevent meningitis.

Extra optional vaccines are also available against some of strains of meningococcus bacteria that can cause bacterial meningitis.

Meningococcal vaccine

Vaccination is your best protection against meningococcal disease. This table explains how the vaccine is given, who should get it, and whether it is on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Some diseases can be prevented with different vaccines, so talk to your doctor about which one is appropriate for you.

What age is it recommended?

12 months.

Teenagers from 14 to 19 years.

When to get vaccinated? If you are travelling and haven’t been vaccinated, consult your doctor or visit a travel health clinic 6 to 12 weeks before you leave Australia.
How many doses are required? 1, 2, 3 or 4, depending on the vaccine and the age it is given.
How is it administered? Injection
Is it free?

Free for babies at 12 months of age and adolescents aged 14 to 16 years at school, or from 15 to 19 years as part of an ongoing catchup program. For everyone else, there is a cost for the vaccine.

Find out more on the Department of Health website and the National Immunisation Program Schedule, and ask your doctor if you are eligible for additional free vaccines based on your situation or location.

Common side effects The vaccines are very safe. Possible side effects include pain, redness and swelling where the needle went in, fever, feeling unsettled or tired, decreased appetite and headache.

Complications of meningitis

Most people make a full recovery after having meningitis. Some people recover fairly quickly and others more slowly, depending on the type and severity of the illness.

Some people who have had meningitis can have after-effects such as tiredness, mood swings, recurring headaches and short-term memory loss, although these effects generally recede with time. Occasionally, meningitis can cause long-term problems such hearing loss or epilepsy.

Resources and support

Read more meningitis on the Meningitis Centre website.

More information on the Australian Immunisation Schedule is available from the Immunise Australia Program, or you can speak to your doctor.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2020


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