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Meningitis is an inflammation (swelling) of the lining of the brain. It can be caused by viruses or bacteria.

Meningitis is rare and does not spread easily from person to person. The bacteria which cause meningitis and meningococcal disease are spread by coughing, sneezing or direct contact such as kissing, but they die rapidly outside the body so there is little risk unless you have had very close contact with an infected person. However, the disease can develop very rapidly, sometimes within a matter of hours. The biggest problem is that most of the early symptoms are mild and similar to those you get with flu or hangover.

Key symptoms include:

severe headache
joint or muscle pains
stiff neck
dislike of bright lights
a fine rash which does not disappear when pressed with a glass; 

More detailed information of the symptoms. Not all of these symptoms need to be present.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, get medical help immediately.
Do not wait until the following day. Around one in ten cases are fatal, and people with meningitis can become seriously ill very quickly.
Early treatment saves lives and can reduce the long term impact of the illness.
What to do in an emergency
If you need to see a doctor urgently out of surgery hours or at weekends or vacation time, please contact the practice you are registered with or NHS Direct on 111.

Further information on meningitis is available at:

Meningitis Research Foundation (this site provides information in a range of languages)
The Meningitis Trust

There are two national meningitis helplines which are also happy to answer ‘over the phone enquiries’:

  • Tel: 0808 800 3344 or;
  • Tel: 0808 80 10 388. 

If you have had close contact with a person diagnosed with probable bacterial meningitis, you will be offered antibiotics to minimise the risk of becoming ill or transmitting the disease. Antibiotics are not offered for less close contacts because the risks are small and because:

  • The meningitis germ may become resistant to the antibiotics and so make future protection impossible
  • There can be side effects from taking antibiotics, which are occasionally serious
  • The nose and throat contain many germs which protect against infection. Antibiotics may kill all of these germs and remove this natural protection, which may put people more at risk of developing meningococcal disease.

Vaccination is not generally recommended in response to a case of meningitis as there are several different strains of meningitis and it does not provide protection against the most common form. So, even if you have been vaccinated against Meningitis C, please seek medical help if you are suffering from the symptoms above.

Emergencies and out of hours
If you need medical advice outside of surgery opening hours please ring NHS Direct on 111 or visit


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