How to spot the signs and symptoms of meningitis in adults

We all know of the dangers of meningitis for babies and young children, but adults are also at risk from the deadly disease.

Even though half of all meningitis cases occur in children under the age of 5, people of all ages can be affected.

[Read more: Chest and lung infections: what are they and when should you see a doctor?]

Dr Tom Nutt, chief executive of Meningitis Now, says: “We’re really keen to get over the message that meningitis is not just a disease of babies and young children – it can strike anyone of any age at any time. In particular, adults over 55 are an at-risk group as their immune systems can be less robust.”

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is the swelling of the membranes (the meninges) that protect the brain and the spinal cord, and is usually caused by germs which enter the body. It can be life-threatening, so immediate action is always necessary and it is important that people are aware of its signs and symptoms.

Meningitis symptoms

The symptoms in adults are very similar to those found in children, with the early signs including cold hands and feet, vomiting, headaches and muscle pain. People’s condition can deteriorate very quickly so it is essential to keep checking and get urgent medical attention.

Signs and symptoms to look out for, in particular, are…

• Fever, cold hands and feet
• Vomiting
• Drowsy, difficult to wake
• Confusion and irritability
• Severe muscle pain
• Pale, blotchy skin. Spots/rash
• Severe headache
• Stiff neck
• Dislike of bright lights
• Convulsions/seizures

Causes of meningitis

There are different causes of meningitis, but the most common are viruses and bacteria. Viral meningitis is more prevalent than bacterial and is rarely life-threatening, but it can still cause people to become seriously unwell. The symptoms are similar to bacterial meningitis, so urgent medical attention is always necessary. Viral meningitis is not seen as contagious and most people will make a full recovery. There are an estimated 6,000 cases of viral meningitis each year.

Bacterial meningitis is the more dangerous form of the disease and can kill people within hours, but if treated quickly it becomes less life-threatening. Most people will make a full recovery from the disease, and about 10% will die and 15% will suffer from life-long disabilities, according to Meningitis Now.

[Read more: How to spot meningitis in babies and children]

The bacteria can also cause septicaemia, an infection of the blood that can be fatal. The common misconception is that a rash is the first sign of meningitis. This is actually caused by septicaemia and is often the last of the symptoms to occur, and sometimes never appears. Doctors therefore advise that you should never wait for the rash, and instead seek urgent medical help as soon as possible if someone is becoming unwell.

There are an estimated 3,200 cases of bacterial meningitis and septicaemia every year in the UK. Following bacterial meningitis or septicaemia, one in 10 people will die and at least a third of survivors will be left with lifelong after-effects such as hearing loss, epilepsy, limb loss or learning difficulties.

Meningitis treatment

Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics, but they are ineffective against the viral form. There are no specific treatments for viral meningitis, but doctors will ensure patients are hydrated, rested and given painkillers in order to aid their recovery. 

Meningitis prevention

Vaccines are the only preventative measure against meningitis, but as of yet, there is no vaccine which will protect people against all its forms. Doctors therefore advise people to always be vigilant of the symptoms.

Dr Nutt says: “Knowing the signs and symptoms and seeking urgent medical attention if meningitis is suspected are the best first step towards protecting yourself and your loved ones.”

For more information and to request symptoms cards visit

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