Meningitis is an inflammation of the membrane that envelops and protects both the brain and the spinal cord. It is mainly caused by an infection with one of various different types of microorganisms, most commonly bacteria and viruses. The body can normally fight off viral meningitis by itself without complications. Bacterial meningitis, however, can be a serious medical emergency. One in ten cases of bacterial meningitis is fatal; it can also leave serious, long-term complications.

How can I recognise meningitis in adults?

It is important to be able to recognise the symptoms of meningitis so that it can be identified and treated quickly. These are some of the common symptoms of meningitis to look out for:

  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Dislike of bright lights (photophobia)
  • A fever (high temperature) of 38C or above
  • Irritability,
  • Lack of energy (fatigue) or drowsiness
  • Confusion (delirium)
  • Aching muscles and joints
  • Seizures
  • A meningitis rash
  • Feeling sick (nausea)
  • Vomiting

These symptoms can come in any order, and some may not appear at all. The symptoms of meningitis may be different in younger children and babies. You can learn more about the symptoms of meningitis in children here (embedded link to meningitis in children)

What to do if I suspect meningitis

Seek medical advice urgently – if you are in doubt whether or not a person needs medical attention, call NHS 111 or make an appointment with your local GP. If you think that a person is seriously ill, call 999 or go to your nearest Accident & Emergency department.

What are the long-term effects of meningitis?

Meningitis can cause long term health issues in survivors – meningitis, especially the bacterial type, has the potential to cause life-altering complications. It is estimated that 20% of survivors of bacterial meningitis will suffer mild to severe after-effects. 

Complications of meningitis include:

  • Recurrent seizures (epilepsy)
  • Partial or total loss of hearing or vision
  • Problems with memory, concentration, coordination, movement, balance, behaviour, and new learning difficulties

Bacterial meningitis can cause septicaemia – septicaemia, sometimes referred to as blood poisoning, is when you body’s immune system becomes overactive in response to a bacterial infection in your bloodstream. This can cause health complications by damaging blood vessels, which reduces the flow of oxygen to major organs.

After-effects of septicaemia can include:

  • Limb amputation
  • Permanent scarring of skin
  • Joint stiffness/Arthritis
  • Kidney damage
  • Lung damage

There are many organisations that are able to support a person who has developed long-term complications as a result of meningitis. For instance, cochlear implants and prosthetic limbs are available to help people adjust; counselling and psychological support may also be offered for the trauma caused by the effects of a meningitis infection.

How do adults get meningitis?

Viral meningitis is the most common type – meningitis caused by viral infections is the most common type in the UK, and affects thousands of people every year. Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis because viral infections typically spread very easily, making it more likely that you will catch a virus that may develop into meningitis than any other type of infection.

Viral meningitis in adults can be caused by:

  • Enteroviruses
  • Herpes viruses - including chickenpox and herpes simplex
  • Mumps
  • Measles
  • HIV

Meningitis-causing bacteria is usually harmless – around 10% of the population carry the meningococcal bacteria in their nose or throat, but are unaffected by the illness themselves. These microorganisms can be spread to other people by coughing, sneezing, kissing, or sharing eating utensils. When the microorganisms is passed on to them, they may then develop meningitis. It is possible for a person who has meningitis themselves to spread the infection to other people, but this is rare.

Bacterial meningitis in adults can be caused by:

  • Meningococci
  • Pneumococci (in particular streptococcus pneumoniae)
  • “Hib” (haemophilus influenzae)
  • Listeria
  • TB (tuberculosis)

The other types of meningitis are rare – fungal, parasitic, and non-infectious meningitis types are very uncommon in the UK. For more information on these rarer types of meningitis, see our page on the different types of meningitis. (embedded link to types of meningitis)

How do I protect myself against meningitis?

Because meningitis can be caused by various microorganisms, there are a few different types of vaccines available to guard against an infection. Most adults should have received most of these on the NHS as children, but there are other groups of vulnerable people that may require vaccination. For instance, young adults coming to university for the first time are often advised to get vaccinated. You can find more information about which vaccinations protect against meningitis here.

Practice good hygiene – viral and bacterial meningitis are the most common types of meningitis, so limiting your exposure to viruses and bacteria will reduce the chance you will get meningitis.

  • Don’t share eating utensils with others, especially people who are sick
  • Keep surfaces clean, as viruses and bacteria can contaminate them (the flu virus can survive on surfaces for 24 hours)
  • Wash hands often with soap and water
  • Carry antibacterial gel to disinfect your hands when you’re not able to wash them

Keep your immune system fighting fit – the weaker your immune system is, the more you are at risk of developing meningitis from an infection. Making efforts to keep yourself fit and healthy means that your immune system will be able to fight off infections faster, reducing the likelihood that they will develop into meningitis. Here are a few ways to help boost your immune system:

  • Eat a well balanced diet, with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Try to get 8 hours of sleep a night, as rest helps the body repair itself
  • Exercise, even if it’s just 30 minutes a day
  • Smoke less, or stop altogether, as tobacco can weaken your immune system