Bacterial meningitis is an infection of the meninges. These are the layers of tissue that cover the brain and spinal cord. It can be deadly if it is not treated within hours.

Bacterial Meningitis

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The infection is caused can be caused by many types of bacteria. It is passed from an infection person through:

  • Coughing, sneezing, or kissing
  • Fluid contact between a mother and child during birth
  • Preparing food

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of this health problem are:

  • Community living, such as a college dormitory or military base
  • Close and prolonged contact with people with meningitis
  • Travel to places with outbreaks of the infection
  • Changes in the nasal passages and throat due to birth defects or head trauma
  • Suppressed immune system caused by certain health conditions or medicines
  • Prior surgery
  • Having cochlear implants


These symptoms can start over many hours or take 1 to 2 days:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Very stiff, sore neck

Other symptoms may be:

  • Red or purple skin rash
  • Bluish skin color
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • Tiredness
  • Confusion
  • Seizures

Babies may also have these symptoms:

  • Fussiness
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • Problems feeding or lack of hunger
  • Tightness or bulging on the top of the head
  • Problems waking


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done.

These tests may be done to look for signs of infection:

  • Blood tests
  • Blood cultures
  • Urine tests
  • Tests of mucous and pus from your skin
  • Lumbar puncture to test the fluid around the spine and brain

Images may be taken with a CT scan in some people.


Medicines will be given to treat the infection. These may be:

  • Antibiotics to treat infection
  • Steroids to ease brain pressure and swelling


Vaccines are the best way to prevent some types of bacterial meningitis.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Meningitis Foundation of American


Health Canada

Meningitis Research Foundation of Canada


Bacterial meningitis in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated July 3, 2019. Accessed October 11, 2019.

Bacterial meningitis in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated August 22, 2018. Accessed October 11, 2019.

McGill F, Heyderman RS, et al. Acute bacterial meningitis in adults. Lancet. 2016 Dec 17;388(10063):3036-3047.

Meningitis and encephalitis fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: Updated August 13, 2019. Accessed October 11, 2019.

Meningococcal disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated May 31, 2019. Accessed October 11, 2019.

Last reviewed September 2019 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Rimas Lukas, MD  Last Updated: 8/12/2020