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Bacterial Meningitis

What is bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis is inflammation of the lining that surrounds and protects your brain and spinal cord. The inflammation is caused by a bacterial infection and can be life-threatening.

What causes bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis is caused by bacteria found in the mouth, throat, or nose. The bacteria are spread from an infected person to another by coughing, kissing, or sharing food or drinks. It can also spread from an ear, nose, throat, sinus, or brain infection. A head injury or head surgery may also spread the infection.

Who is at risk for bacterial meningitis?

  • Adults over 60 years of age
  • Young adults between 15 and 24 years
  • Children younger than 2 years of age
  • People with diabetes, cancer, or who have received transplanted organs
  • People who were recently exposed to bacterial meningitis

What are the signs and symptoms of bacterial meningitis?

It may only take a few hours to a few days to have any of the following signs and symptoms:

  • High fever and chills
  • Stiff neck or neck pain
  • Severe headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Red or purple rash
  • Eye pain when you look into bright lights
  • Sleepiness or confusion

How is bacterial meningitis diagnosed?

  • A CT , or CAT scan, takes pictures of your skull and brain. You may be given contrast liquid before the scan. Tell a healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.
  • Lumbar puncture: This procedure may also be called a spinal tap. During a lumbar puncture, you will need to lie very still. Caregivers may give you medicine to make you lose feeling in a small area of your back. Caregivers will clean this area of your back. A needle will be put in, and fluid removed from around your spinal cord. The fluid will be sent to a lab for tests. The tests check for infection, bleeding around your brain and spinal cord, or other problems. Sometimes medicine may be put into your back to treat your illness.
  • An MRI of the head takes pictures of your brain, blood vessels, and skull. You may be given contrast liquid to help the pictures show up better. Tell a healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell a healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • Throat culture: This is a test that may help caregivers learn which type of germ is causing your illness. A throat culture is done by rubbing a cotton swab against the back of the throat.

How is bacterial meningitis treated?

  • Antibiotics: This medicine is given to help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.
  • Anticonvulsant medicine: This medicine is given to control seizures. Take this medicine exactly as directed.
  • Fever medicine: This medicine lowers your temperature. Common medicines used to lower temperature include acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
  • Steroids: This medicine may be given to decrease inflammation.

What medical problems can bacterial meningitis cause?

  • Seizure
  • Hearing loss
  • Blindness
  • Heart, kidney, or adrenal gland diseases
  • Coma

How can bacterial meningitis be prevented?

  • Antibiotic medicines may be given if you have been exposed to someone who has bacterial meningitis. You may also receive antibiotics if you have a weak immune system.
  • Discard tissue after you wipe or blow your nose.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.
  • Do not share food or drinks.
  • Certain illnesses caused by bacteria can lead to bacterial meningitis. Ask your caregiver if you need any of the following vaccines against illnesses caused by bacteria:
    • Meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine (MPV) helps prevent certain types of meningococcal disease. MPV is usually given to adults 56 years or older who are at high risk for the disease.
    • Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPV) helps prevent pneumococcal disease, such as pneumonia. The PPV is given to adults aged 65 years or older. Adults younger than 65 who are at a higher risk for pneumococcal disease also may need the vaccine.

Where can I get more information?

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
    1600 Clifton Road
    Atlanta , GA 30333
    Phone: 1- 800 - 232-4636
    Web Address:
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
    NIAID Office of Communications & Government Relations
    5601 Fishers Lane, MSC 9806
    Bethesda, MD 20892-9806
    For deliveries, use Rockville, MD 20852
    Phone: 1- 301 - 496-5717
    Phone: 1- 866 - 284-4107
    Web Address:

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • Blood soaks through your bandage.
  • Your arm or leg feels warm, tender, and painful. It may look swollen and red.
  • You suddenly feel lightheaded and short of breath.
  • You have chest pain when you take a deep breath or cough. You may cough up blood.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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