Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is a very serious type of meningitis. It can cause the tissues around your brain to swell, leading to long-term complications and even death. If you have symptoms of bacterial meningitis, you should seek immediate treatment. Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics can often lead to a full recovery.


What is bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis is a life-threatening type of meningitis. Meningitis is inflammation of the membranes (meninges) that surround and protect your brain and spinal cord. An infection of the fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord usually causes this inflammation. Anyone experiencing symptoms of meningitis should seek medical care immediately. Bacterial meningitis can cause death within hours.

Viral vs. bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis and viral meningitis both cause inflammation of your meninges. Bacterial infections cause bacterial meningitis and viral infections cause viral meningitis. Viral meningitis is more common but isn’t usually as serious as bacterial meningitis. Bacterial meningitis can cause the tissues around your brain to swell. This in turn can interfere with blood flow and can result in paralysis, stroke and even death.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis symptoms typically come on suddenly, often within 24 hours of exposure. Symptoms may include:

In older children and adults, symptoms may also include irritability and increasing drowsiness. Seizures and stroke may occur.

In babies and young children, fever may cause vomiting and they may refuse to eat. Other symptoms may include:

  • Sleepiness or trouble waking up.
  • Low energy or slower responses (lethargy).
  • Irritability.
  • Bulging fontanelle (“soft spot” on your baby’s head).
  • Seizures.

If you or your child has any of these symptoms, go to your nearest emergency room or call 911 right away. Bacterial meningitis can worsen quickly, leading to coma and even death within hours.

What bacteria cause meningitis?

About 50 different types of bacteria can cause bacterial meningitis. The most common bacteria include:


How do you get bacterial meningitis?

The bacteria most often responsible for bacterial meningitis are common in the environment. They can be in your nose and throat at any time without causing any harm. You may not get sick, but you can still spread the bacteria to other people who could get sick. You can spread the bacteria through close contact with someone else. The bacteria commonly spreads through respiratory secretions when you’re sneezing, coughing or kissing.

Is bacterial meningitis contagious?

Yes. If you’ve had bacterial meningitis, you should encourage anyone you’ve had close contact with to seek preventive treatment with antibiotics.

Who gets bacterial meningitis?

Children between the ages of 1 month and 2 years are the most susceptible to bacterial meningitis.

Adults with certain risk factors are also susceptible. You’re at higher risk if you have:

Additionally, if you’ve had brain or spinal surgery or have had a widespread blood infection, you’re also at a higher risk for bacterial meningitis.

Outbreaks of bacterial meningitis also occur in living situations where you’re in close contact with others, such as college dormitories or military barracks.

What are the complications of bacterial meningitis?

If you don’t seek treatment immediately, bacterial meningitis can lead to paralysis, stroke and death. In people who survive, long-term complications can occur. These complications may include:


Diagnosis and Tests

How is bacterial meningitis diagnosed?

If you suspect you have meningitis, it’s important that you seek immediate medical assistance. A healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and perform a physical exam.

The provider may collect samples of your blood, urine or mucus. They’ll also perform a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to collect a sample of your cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). This is the fluid that surrounds your spinal cord. A laboratory will test the samples to determine what’s causing your infection.

If your provider suspects meningitis, they’ll begin treatment right away, before the test results come back.

Management and Treatment

How is bacterial meningitis treated?

Healthcare providers treat bacterial meningitis with antibiotics. They’ll give you an IV (intravenous) antibiotic with a corticosteroid to bring down the inflammation even before all the test results are in. When the lab identifies the specific bacterium causing your condition, your provider may change to a different antibiotic.


Is there a bacterial meningitis vaccine?

Yes. Several vaccines protect against some of the bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis. These vaccines include:

How else can I prevent bacterial meningitis?

If you’re pregnant, you should talk to your healthcare provider about group B Streptococcus testing during your 36th or 37th week of pregnancy. If you test positive, your provider can give you antibiotics during labor to prevent passing group B strep to your baby.

You can also prevent bacterial meningitis by maintaining healthy habits, including:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Stay away from people who are sick.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis is a serious condition. Between 10% and 15% of people who get the disease will die. Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics lead to a better chance of recovery.

Living With

When should I go to the ER?

Bacterial meningitis is an uncommon condition, but it’s a medical emergency that can worsen quickly. If you’re experiencing any symptoms of the disease, you should seek medical care immediately.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

You may want to ask your healthcare provider the following questions:

  • How did I get bacterial meningitis?
  • What type of treatment do I need?
  • When should I follow up?
  • How can I avoid getting bacterial meningitis again?
  • Will I have any long-term complications from bacterial meningitis?
  • Am I contagious to others?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Bacterial meningitis is a very serious, life-threatening disease. If you have symptoms of the condition, it’s important to seek medical attention right away. Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics can often lead to a full recovery. But delayed treatment can lead to long-term complications and even death. The best way to prevent bacterial meningitis is vaccination against certain bacteria that can cause the disease.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 07/19/2023.

Learn more about our editorial process.

Questions 216.444.2538