Meningitis: The Facts


Meningitis bacteria, artist's impression

Meningitis is the infection of the meninges–the protective membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

It can be a serious threat to life if not treated quickly, as infection can lead to blood poisoning known as septicaemia, with permanent damage to the brain or nerves also a risk. As a result, it is the 2nd largest infectious killer of children in the world, so what measures can we take to protect ourselves?

What are the two different types of meningitis?

Meningitis can result from a bacterial or viral infection, which are both transferred through actions such as sneezing and coughing. People can carry these bacteria or viruses in their nose or throat, often passing them on to others without becoming ill themselves.

Bacterial meningitis is less common than viral, but has more serious implications, with approximately 1 in every 10 cases being fatal. There are to date 12 identified groups of bacterial meningitis, A, B, C, E, H, I, K, L, W, X, Y, and Z, of which groups B, C, W and Y were historically the most common in the UK5a

Who can get it?

Anyone is at risk who hasn’t been vaccinated, although it is most prevalent for anyone in the age range between infancy and young adulthood.

It is spread by aerosol, droplets or direct contact with respiratory secretions of someone carrying the organism. Transmission usually requires either frequent or prolonged close contact.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

The order of symptoms can be utterly random, and some may not appear at all, but early signals of meningitis are:

  • Body temperature exceeding 38°C
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhoea
  • Muscle Pain
  • Stomach cramps
  • A stiff neck
  • Rash – in the later stages

If you or your child exhibits any combination of these symptoms, it is imperative you do not wait to see if a rash develops, you should seek medical assistance immediately.

How can meningitis be treated?

Anyone suffering from either strain of meningitis is sure to have to take some time off school or work in order to fully recover.

In the case of bacterial meningitis, patients will need to be monitored in hospital for a minimum of a one-week period, with methods of treatment such as:

  • The supply of oxygen through a facemask
  • Fluids and antibiotics supplied directly into veins

Viral meningitis does not have to be as closely monitored, as it often gets better on its own between days 7 to 10 after infection and is usually treated at home.

Painkillers and anti-sickness tablets can also be taken to help reduce the symptoms of meningitis.

Vaccine Information

Doctor preparing syringe to administer vaccine

Meningococcal bacteria are one of the main contributors to meningitis and septicaemia, and two strains can be tackled through the administration of MenB and MenC or ACWY vaccines.

An especially dangerous strain– MenW– has been prevalent since 2009. Teenagers in the UK or travellers to high risk areas are most at risk of contracting this infection. As a result, the Meningitis ACWY vaccine is recommended for anyone between the ages of 14 and 18 or for those travelling to high risk areas undertaking activities such as the Hajj or pilgrimages or for those travelling to the ‘meningitis belt’ in sub- Saharan Africa.

Also, the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine can protect against some viral causes of meningitis, while the pneumococcal vaccine and Hib vaccine are given to children to combat different strains.

Travel Advice

Meningitis is widespread throughout the world, but it is most common in sub-Saharan Africa, so anyone travelling to a country in this area should be particularly wary. To reduce the risk of infection where there has been a known outbreak, it is safer to avoid large crowds where harmful bacteria can be spread.

If you are setting off backpacking then vaccination is advisable, as it is more likely that anyone who travels ‘rough’ will be infected, and medical care may not immediately be accessible in more remote areas.


Article last reviewed on 31/07/2019 by:

Denise Chalkley RN, RM, RHV, BSc, AMFTM RCPS (Glas)
Clinical & Operations Director for Travel Medicine

Denise is an associate member of the Faculty of Travel Medicine, and a freelance lecturer at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow for the Faculty of Travel Medicine. She also lectures at the University of Hertfordshire teaching immunisations, tuberculosis, sexual health and travel medicine.

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