Meningitis is a serious disease that can cause blood poisoning. Meningitis is also known as meningococcal disease when it is caused by bacteria. The meningitis rash is the most well-known symptom, but there are many others. Meningitis is contagious and usually requires treatment in hospital.

Risk areas
Worldwide, but particularly Sub-Saharan Africa and areas where the majority of people are unvaccinated
Annual deaths
Survival rate
50% with treatment
Long-term effects
10-30% of cases
People at highest risk
Children, young adults, elderly, those with weakened immune systems
Related vaccines

01. Types of meningitis

There are several different types of meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis, known as meningococcal disease, is usually more serious than other forms.

Meningococcal disease is present in parts of the world where many people are unvaccinated, so travellers should check if they need the meningitis vaccine before leaving.

Viral meningitis is almost never life-threatening and viruses rarely cause blood poisoning and other more serious complications of meningitis.

Fungal meningitis is very rare in the UK and Ireland, but is serious. It usually only affects people with weakened immune systems.

02. Is meningitis contagious?

Meningitis is a contagious disease that you can catch by being in close contact with an infected person.

Meningitis is spread through saliva, so it can be passed on to you through kissing or if someone with the disease coughs or sneezes around you.

Other causes of meningitis includes inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke and sharing cutlery or toothbrushes with an infected person.

If you must be in close contact with someone who has meningitis, it is important you practice good hygiene by washing your hands regularly.

03. Risk factors of meningitis

Those with a higher risk of meningitis include babies, young children, teenagers, young adults and elderly people.

People with a weakened immune system, for example those who are receiving chemotherapy or are diagnosed with HIV, are also more susceptible to meningitis.

Travellers may be at increased risk for meningitis if they travel to certain places, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly during the dry season.

Those who attend mass gatherings, such as Mecca during the annual Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage are also at a higher risk, due to the high number of unvaccinated people in attendance.

You can reduce the risk of getting meningitis by ensuring all your vaccinations are up-to-date.

It is also a good idea to check whether there is an increased risk in the area you are travelling to. Check if the country you are travelling to has a risk of meningitis through the search bar below.

04. Symptoms of meningitis

A well-recognised meningitis symptom is a blotchy rash that does not fade when a glass is rolled over it, but this does not appear in all cases.

The meningitis rash usually starts as small, red pinpricks that spread quickly and turn into red or purple blotches.

The meningitis rash can be harder to see on dark skin, so it is important to check for spots on paler areas. Check hands, feet, stomach, inside the eyelids and the roof of the mouth.

If a rash does not fade under a clear glass, this is a sign of blood poisoning caused by meningitis.

You should see a doctor as soon as you see any meningitis symptoms, as the disease can progress very quickly.

After infection, early signs of meningitis can develop between two and ten days, which is known as the meningitis incubation period.

Early symptoms of meningitis can include:

  • fever

  • nausea

  • fatigue

  • headache

  • muscle aches

  • joint pains

  • rapid breathing

  • cold hands and feet

  • pale, spotty skin

  • neck stiffness

  • confusion

  • light sensitivity

  • drowsiness

  • seizures

These meningitis symptoms can develop in any order and some may not appear at all.

Symptoms of meningitis in babies

Meningitis symptoms in babies, toddlers and children may appear differently, and can include your child:

  • refusing to feed or eat

  • appearing agitated and not wanting to be picked up

  • developing a soft spot on their head

  • becoming floppy or unresponsive

  • crying in an unusual or high-pitched way

  • becoming stiff

It is important that you see a doctor for a diagnosis as soon as you suspect your child may be infected with meningitis.

05. Diagnosis of meningitis

Diagnosis of meningitis usually involves several tests.

These tests can also check whether the condition is the result of a virus or bacterial infection. This can affect the kind of meningitis treatment you will need.

Meningitis diagnosis tests may include:

  • physical examinations to look for symptoms of the disease

  • blood tests

  • testing samples of fluid taken from your spine

  • scans of your brain to look for problems such as swelling

As meningitis can be very serious, you will usually be given antibiotic treatment straight away, even before a meningitis diagnosis is confirmed.

This can be stopped if tests show the condition is being caused by a virus or something other than meningitis. This treatment will not harm you.

06. Treatment of meningitis

Meningitis treatment varies depending on the type of meningitis you have, and how serious the infection is.

Meningitis is curable, but there is not a specific meningitis cure, just medicines that can be used to treat it and other conditions.

Meningitis caused by bacteria, known as meningococcal disease, can be treated with antibiotics unlike meningitis caused by a virus.

You may need to stay in a hospital for a few days or weeks for meningitis treatment so that you can be closely monitored.

Treatment of meningitis can include:

  • antibiotics given into your vein through a tube known as an IV

  • fluids given directly into an IV to prevent dehydration

  • oxygen through a face mask to help you breathe

  • steroid medication to reduce any brain swelling

You will usually be able to go home from the hospital if you have mild meningitis, which will normally get better on its own within seven to ten days.

Your doctor will advise you to get plenty of rest, and to take painkillers and anti-sickness medicine if needed.

You may need long-term treatment and support if you have any complications of meningitis, such as hearing aids or physiotherapy.

07. Complications of meningitis

Most people make a full recovery from the disease, but sometimes complications of meningitis can occur, causing serious, long-term problems that can be life threatening.

Complications of meningitis can include:

  • hearing loss

  • problems with memory and concentration

  • coordination, movement and balance problems

  • learning difficulties and behavioural problems

  • vision loss

  • disability due to amputation of limbs damaged by the disease

  • bone and joint problems

  • kidney problems

To decrease your risk of meningitis complications, you should see a doctor as soon as you see any symptoms of the disease.

08. Prevention of meningitis

There are many ways to decrease your risk of meningitis transmission, including getting vaccinated.

If you need to get vaccinated for meningitis, you can book a vaccination appointment online today.

If you are unsure whether you need the meningitis vaccine, you can book a free telephone consultation to speak to one of our prescribing nurses about meningitis prevention. They can give you a personal recommendation based on your health and travel plans.

For effective meningitis prevention, it is recommended that you:

  • check if you need the meningitis vaccine

  • learn about meningitis symptoms so you can spot signs

  • avoid contact with anyone infected with meningitis

  • do not kiss or be intimate with an infected person

  • do not share cutlery or toothbrushes with an infected person

  • practice good hygiene and wash hands regularly

  • avoid people coughing or sneezing around you

  • do not inhale second-hand smoke from an infected person

Related vaccines
Content reviewed by

Anne Marie Major, Independent Nurse Prescriber
24 June 2019