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.
Symptoms of meningitis – babies and young children
The symptoms and signs of meningitis in babies and young children include:
- refusing feeds
- being difficult to wake
- purple–red skin rash or bruising
- high moaning cry
- pale or blotchy skin.
Symptoms of meningitis – older children and adults
The symptoms and signs of meningitis in adults and older children include:
- neck stiffness and joint pains
- drowsiness and confusion
- purple–red skin rash or bruising
- discomfort looking at bright lights (photophobia).
Diagnosis of meningitis
A 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.
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).
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 – five per cent of Hib meningitis, seven per cent of meningococcal meningitis and 20 per cent of pneumococcal meningitis. One in five children are left with permanent disabilities, such as cerebral palsy and deafness.
Prevention of bacterial meningitis
Some forms of meningitis can be prevented by immunisation including:
- Haemophilus influenzae type b – can be prevented with Hib immunisation, which is available in combination vaccines free on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. It is routinely offered tor babies and needs to be purchased on prescription for some groups at high risk of bacterial disease.
- Meningococcal group A, B, C, W135 and Y – can be prevented with a range of vaccines. Some immunisation is available free on the National Immunisation Program Schedule routinely for 12 month old babies or childhood catch-up and some vaccine needs to be purchased with prescription for some groups at high risk of bacterial disease or some travellers
- Pneumococcal – can be prevented with two types of pneumococcal vaccine.. They are available free on the National Immunisation Schedule to all babies and adults 50 years of age, if the person is an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, or at 65 years of age and over. They need to be purchased on prescription for some groups at high risk of bacterial disease.
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.
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:
- mumps virus
Prevention of 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 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:
- 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
- Your doctor
- 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)
- Local community health centre
- 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.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Department of Health and Human Services - RHP&R - Health Protection - Communicable Disease Prevention and Control Unit
Page content currently being reviewed.
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.