Meningitis | Better Health Channel
Better Health Channel on twitter Connect with us via Twitter and share Australia's best health and medical info with those close to you
Close survey
Meningitis

Summary

Meningitis is when the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord (meninges) become infected by bacteria or viruses. Meningitis can cause death. Meningitis symptoms in babies and young children include fever, refusing feeds, fretfulness, being difficult to wake, purple–red skin rash or bruising, high moaning cry and pale or blotchy skin. Symptoms of meningitis in adults and older children include headache, fever, vomiting, neck stiffness and joint pains, drowsiness and confusion, purple–red skin rash or bruising and discomfort looking at bright lights (photophobia).

Download the PDF version of this fact sheet Email this fact sheet

Meningitis is when the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord (meninges) become infected. Meningitis can be caused by bacteria or viruses. You must get treatment immediately because meningitis can cause death.

Immunisation can protect against some forms of meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis


Meningitis caused by bacteria is called ‘bacterial meningitis’. The organisms (germs) that cause bacterial meningitis may live in the nose and throat. People of any age can carry them without becoming ill, but they can infect others through coughing or sneezing. Meningitis caused by these bacteria is serious and requires very prompt medical attention.

Some common examples of bacterial meningitis are:
  • Haemophilus (Hib) meningitis – caused by Haemophilus influenzae type b.
  • Meningococcal meningitis – caused by Neisseria meningitides.
  • Pneumococcal meningitis – caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae.
Meningitis caused by bacteria is serious. Antibiotics are used to treat the infection but death does occur in a small number of those affected: Hib (5%), meningococcal (7%) and pneumococcal meningitis (20%). One in five children are left with permanent disabilities, such as cerebral palsy and deafness.

Viral meningitis


Meningitis caused by a virus is called ‘viral meningitis’. This type of meningitis is relatively common and can occasionally be serious. It can be caused by a variety of different viruses. It is often a complication of another viral illness.

Some of the viruses that can cause meningitis include:
  • Enteroviruses
  • Coxsackieviruses
  • Mumps virus
  • Adenovirus.

Signs and symptoms of meningitis – babies and young children


The symptoms and signs of meningitis in babies and young children include:
  • Fever
  • Refusing feeds
  • Fretfulness
  • Being difficult to wake
  • Purple–red skin rash or bruising
  • High moaning cry
  • Pale or blotchy skin.

Signs and symptoms of meningitis – older children and adults


The symptoms and signs of meningitis in adults and older children include:
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Neck stiffness and joint pains
  • Drowsiness and confusion
  • Purple–red skin rash or bruising
  • Discomfort looking at bright lights (photophobia).

Diagnosis of meningitis


Your doctor is the only person who can make a diagnosis to determine if meningitis is viral or bacterial. Meningitis is sometimes difficult to diagnose. Your doctor may order several tests or seek specialist advice. The diagnosis may include:
  • Taking a detailed history of signs and symptoms
  • Clinical examination
  • Blood tests
  • A lumbar puncture, which may be done in hospital (spinal fluid is removed using a needle and examined for bacteria).

Preventing bacterial meningitis


Some forms of meningitis can be prevented by immunisation:
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b – can be prevented with Hib vaccine, which is offered to all infants in Australia.
  • Meningococcal group C – a vaccine is now available that can give long-lasting protection against group C meningococcal disease, which is one of the most common groups in Australia. Unfortunately, no vaccine is available for group B meningococcal disease, which is also a common type of meningococcal bacteria in Australia.
  • Pneumococcal disease – two types of vaccine are available. They are available to anyone in the community but are provided free for certain high-risk groups, including all babies and adults 65 years of age and over.
  • Types not common in Australia – vaccines are available for travellers to cover some forms of meningitis that are not common in Australia.

Preventing viral meningitis


You can prevent the spread of many viral infections by using a handkerchief and washing your hands thoroughly after using the toilet. You should also avoid close contact, sneezing and coughing over other people if you have a viral infection.

Treatment for bacterial meningitis


Early and rapid diagnosis is very important in the treatment of bacterial meningitis. Treatment may include:
  • Antibiotics (often given intravenously)
  • Hospital care
  • Anticonvulsant, cortisone and sedative medications, which may be used to treat complications.

Treatment for viral meningitis


Treatment depends on the severity of the symptoms. Treatment is the same as for any viral infection and may include supportive care such as:
  • Resting
  • Keeping warm and comfortable
  • Drinking plenty of fluids.
Viral meningitis cannot be treated with antibiotics.

Get further medical help if you are still worried


You are the expert in your family’s health. If you think a person has symptoms that suggest meningitis, contact your doctor immediately, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance or go to the nearest hospital emergency department. Early diagnosis and treatment are vital.

Where to get help

  • If you suspect meningitis, see your doctor straight away,
  • In an emergency, call triple zero (000)
  • Go to the emergency department of your nearest public hospital
  • Nurse-on-Call Tel. 1300 606 024 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
  • Your local community health centre
  • Your local council immunisation service
  • Immunisation Program, Department of Health Victoria Tel. 1300 882 008
  • National Immunisation Infoline Tel. 1800 671 811

Things to remember

  • Bacterial meningitis is serious and requires very prompt medical attention.
  • Different germs can cause meningitis.
  • Viral meningitis is relatively common and may also be serious.
  • Vaccination can protect against some forms of meningitis.

You might also be interested in:

Want to know more?

Go to More information for support groups, related links and references.


This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:

Department of Health logo

(Logo links to further information)


Department of Health logo

Fact sheet currently being reviewed.
Last reviewed: July 2012

Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.


If you would like to link to this fact sheet on your website, simply copy the code below and add it to your page:

<a href="http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Meningitis?open">Meningitis - Better Health Channel</a><br/>
Meningitis is when the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord (meninges) become infected by bacteria or viruses. Meningitis can cause death. Meningitis symptoms in babies and young children include fever, refusing feeds, fretfulness, being difficult to wake, purple–red skin rash or bruising, high moaning cry and pale or blotchy skin. Symptoms of meningitis in adults and older children include headache, fever, vomiting, neck stiffness and joint pains, drowsiness and confusion, purple–red skin rash or bruising and discomfort looking at bright lights (photophobia).



Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your qualified health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residence and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a qualified health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

For the latest updates and more information, visit www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au

Copyight © 1999/2014  State of Victoria. Reproduced from the Better Health Channel (www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au) at no cost with permission of the Victorian Minister for Health. Unauthorised reproduction and other uses comprised in the copyright are prohibited without permission.

footer image for printing