What is meningitis?

Meningitis is a bacterial, viral or fungal infection that can cause inflammation of the protective membranes that line the brain (the meninges). 

Diagram showing how meningitis affects the brain, including the meninges around the brain (copyright shutterstock_89870962)

What are the causes of meningitis?

Meningitis can be bacterial, viral or sometimes fungal, although bacterial meningitis (caused by the meningococcal bacteria) is more serious than viral or fungal meningitis and requires rapid treatment. The infection can pass through the brain's natural barrier and infect the meninges, causing them to swell as they attempt to stop the infection from spreading. Meningitis can also infect the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), leading to a rise in intracranial pressure. Inflammation and increased pressure around the brain can cause serious injury if left untreated. 

How is meningitis diagnosed?

Meningitis can be recognised by a rapid onset of flu-like symptoms and a characteristic purple rash, although the rash does not always appear. Tests to diagnose meningitis can take a number of hours to complete, so treatment will usually be offered immediately if meningitis is suspected. A diagnosis can also be made using a blood test, lumbar puncture, a CT scan or a chest X-ray.

How is meningitis treated?

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial meningitis and serious viral meningitis. 

Depending on the seriousness of meningitis, patients might need to stay in hospital so that fluids can be given to prevent dehydration and oxygen might be given for breathing problems. Sometimes, steroid medication might help to reduce the swelling around the brain and prevent further brain damage. Mild viral meningitis can usually be treated at home with plenty of rest. 

Vaccinations are also offered to prevent and protect against some meningitis strains.

What are the effects of meningitis?

Most people with meningitis will make a full recovery, however in some cases in can causes long term effects such as hearing loss, vision loss, seizures, memory problems, balance and coordination problems. And in some rare cases, loss of limbs/amputation of affected limb.

You can read more about the symptoms of meningitis in The effects of brain injury section. Most Headway groups and branches can offer support to people with meningitis, their family and carers. 

Get support from Headway

Headway offers a range of support to people with a brain injury, their family and friends. From a network of local groups and branches to specialist nurses, grants to individuals in need, a Brain Injury Identity Card and a nurse-led helpline.

Explore the Supporting you section to find out how we can help.