Facts About Meningitis

About Meningitis

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. The inflammation is usually caused by bacteria or viruses (viral meningitis is also called aseptic meningitis). Less common causes include fungi, protozoa, and other parasites. Sometimes certain medications, cancers, or other diseases can inflame the meninges, although such noninfectious cases of meningitis are much rarer.

Many of the bacteria or viruses that can cause meningitis are fairly common and are more often associated with other everyday illnesses. Sometimes, however, they spread to the meninges from an infection in another part of the body. The infection can start anywhere, including in the skin, gastrointestinal tract, or urinary system, but the most common source is the respiratory tract. From there the microorganisms can enter the bloodstream, travel through the body, and enter the central nervous system. In some cases of bacterial meningitis, the bacteria spread directly to the meninges from a severe nearby infection, such as a serious ear infection (otitis media) or nasal sinus infection (sinusitis). Bacteria may also enter the central nervous system after severe head trauma or head surgery.

Meningitis can kill in hours. Meningitis can be hard to recognise at first. Symptoms can appear in any order, but the first symptoms are usually fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell, just like in many mild illnesses.

What to look for:

  • Fever and /or vomiting
  • Severe headache
  • Rash (anywhere on the body)
  • Stiff neck
  • Dislike of bright lights
  • Very sleepy / vacant / difficult to wake
  • Confused / delirious
  • Seizures (fits)

Signs in newborns

Newborns and young infants may not have the classic signs and symptoms of headache and stiff neck. Instead, they may cry constantly, seem unusually sleepy or irritable, and eat poorly. Sometimes the soft spots on an infant's head may bulge. A very late sign may be a spasm consisting of extreme hyperextension of the body (opisthotonos).

If you or your child has bacterial meningitis, delaying treatment increases the risk of permanent brain damage. In addition, bacterial meningitis can prove fatal in a matter of days. Seek medical care right away if you or anyone in your family has any signs or symptoms.

Babies can get ill very quickly, so check often.

  • Tense or bulging soft spot
  • High Temperature
  • Very sleepy/staring expression/too sleepy to wake up
  • Vomiting/refusing to feed
  • Irritable when picked up, with a high pitch or moaning cry
  • Breathing fast / difficulty breathing
  • Blotchy skin, getting paler or turning blue
  • Extreme shivering
  • A stiff body with jerky movements, or else floppy / lifeless
  • 'Pin prick' rash / marks or purple bruises on the body
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Sometimes diarrhoea
  • Pain/ irritability from muscle aches or severe limb/joint pain 


Meningitis typically results from contagious infections. Common bacteria or viruses that can cause meningitis can spread through coughing, sneezing, kissing or sharing eating utensils, a toothbrush or a cigarette. You're also at increased risk if you live or work with someone who has the disease.

Careful hand washing is important to avoiding exposure to infectious agents. Teach your children to wash their hands often, especially before they eat and after using the toilet, spending time in a crowded public place or petting animals. Show them how to wash their hands vigorously, covering both the front and back of each hand with soap and rinsing thoroughly under running water. In addition, boost your immune system by getting enough rest, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

If you're pregnant, reduce your risk of listeriosis by cooking meat thoroughly and avoiding cheeses made from unpasteurized milk.

Some forms of bacterial meningitis are preventable with the following vaccinations:

  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine. Children in the United States routinely receive this vaccine as part of the recommended schedule of vaccines, starting at about 2 months of age. The vaccine is also recommended for some adults, including those with sickle cell disease or AIDS.
  • Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV7). This vaccine is also part of the regular immunization schedule for children younger than 2 years in the United States. In addition, it's recommended for children between the ages of 2 and 5 who are at high risk of pneumococcal disease, including children with chronic heart or lung disease or cancer.
  • Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPV). Older children and adults who need protection from pneumococcal bacteria may receive this vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the PPV vaccine for all adults older than 65 and younger adults and children with compromised immune systems or chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes or sickle cell anemia.
  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4). As of May 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that this vaccine be routinely administered for the following previously unvaccinated groups: children 11 to 12 years old, adolescents at high school entry (about age 15), and college freshmen living in dormitories.