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Frequently asked questions

Meningitis means inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. There are many different causes of meningitis but the most common causes in the UK are bacteria and viruses. Meningitis can be particularly dangerous for babies because they have an immature immune system which can be quickly overwhelmed by this infection.

For more information take a look at the Understand the risks page.

Teenagers start to mix together more as they develop into young adults which makes them more likely to share and spread their germs and bugs. Many teenagers harmlessly carry the bacteria that causes meningitis in the back of their nose and throat. However this bacteria can be passed on easily to others who may be more susceptible. These teenagers may then develop bacterial meningitis.

For more information take a look at the Understand the risks page.

Meningitis can be caused by lots of different things but bacterial and viral infections are the most common causes. If a person has no natural immunity to the types of bacteria that cause meningitis, they can catch it from someone who may be carrying bacteria harmlessly in their nose and throat. Bacterial meningitis is normally transmitted person-to-person, e.g. through close contact like sneezing, coughing, kissing or sharing drinks and utensils.

For more information take a look at the Understand the risks page.

Signs and symptoms can be different depending on a person’s age – for example symptoms can be different in babies versus teenagers – and they can appear in any order or not at all.

Early signs are similar across all age groups and include: fever, fever with cold hands and feet, vomiting, muscle pain and headache.

Later symptoms in babies and toddlers (under 5 years) include: unusual crying, rapid breathing or grunting, tense or bulging fontanelle (soft spot), unusual cry, moaning, fretful, dislike of being handled, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights, convulsions/seizures, pale blotchy skin, spots or a rash that does not fade under pressure (this can be a sign of septicaemia), refusing food, drowsy, floppy, unresponsive.

Later symptoms in children, teenagers and young adults include: dislike of bright lights, convulsions/seizures, drowsy, difficult to wake, stiff neck, confusion and irritability, pale blotchy skin, spots or a rash that does not fade under pressure (this can be a sign of septicaemia).

For more information take a look at the Know the symptoms page.

Do not wait for a rash that does not fade under pressure if someone is displaying other signs and symptoms of meningitis. This type of rash can be a sign of septicaemia (blood poisoning), which normally happens once bacterial meningitis has taken hold.

Seek help immediately if this type of rash appears.

If you see a rash, do the glass test. Press the side of a clear drinking glass firmly onto the rash, spots or bruises. If it is septicaemia, they will not fade.

For more information take a look at the Know the symptoms page.

Treatment will depend on the type of meningitis a person has. For example, if it is caused by bacteria this will be urgently treated in hospital with intravenous (into a vein) antibiotics. If a person has viral meningitis, antibiotics won’t be effective and there is no specific treatment. Patients will need to be kept hydrated, given painkillers and allowed to rest to help them recover.

There is no single vaccine that protects against meningitis. The NHS provide a schedule of vaccines for different diseases and these are given to babies, older children and adults at your local surgery. Some of these vaccines help protect against certain types of meningitis bacteria and others against diseases that can cause meningitis. However, the schedule does change over time as different vaccines become available. Plus, not all age groups are included when different vaccines come on to the schedule and they may be available privately. To make sure you and your family have received all age-appropriate vaccines available on the schedule, please check with your doctor or pharmacist.

For more information take a look at the Help protect your family page.

Currently at school children aged 14-15 receive an ACWY meningitis vaccine but this doesn’t cover all the different strains. Other vaccines against meningitis-causing diseases are available and you should check with your doctor or pharmacist.

For more information take a look at the Help protect your family page.

The length of protection is different depending on the vaccine given. The amount of protection each vaccine can provide has been studied for up to a certain amount of time and protection has been proven up to this timescale. Vaccines are continuously studied and monitored for their effectiveness – speak to your doctor if you would like more information.

Your local doctor will be able to help you with any questions you have about vaccinations. You can also find more information about meningitis, vaccines for different age groups and the UK vaccination schedule on the NHS website here.