Meningitis - commonly asked questions

Q. What are the symptoms to watch for, with meningitis?
A. See meningitis leaflet from the Meningitis Research Foundation. The main symptoms of meningococcal meningitis are:

  • vomiting
  • high temperature/fever/stiff neck
  • dislike of bright lights
  • drowsiness/lethargy
  • joint pains
  • rash - tiny blood spots or bruising under the skin, which can appear anywhere on the body and do not turn white when pressed
Q. How common is the organism that causes meningitis?
A. Research has shown that the organism that can cause meningococcal meningitis is very common in the community and lives at the back of the nose in up to one quarter of all first year students. In the general community its prevalence is about 10%. The germs cannot live for more than a few seconds outside the body, but are regularly being passed from one person to another by people coughing, sneezing and intimate kissing.

Q. What causes some people to become very ill from this organism?
A. This is not known. There must be other factors involved. Possible theories are based on ideas that something else, either environmental or genetic, causes some individuals’ immune defences to break down. It is a lot more complex than people simply catching the organism, and developing meningitis. The vast majority of those who have the organism remain perfectly well. In fact, evidence suggests that people who carry the germ are more immune to the diseases that may be caused by it.

Q. In the event of a case, which contacts are given antibiotics?
A. Antibiotics are given to very close and prolonged contacts, i.e. those living in the same household and intimate kissing contacts, or equivalent.

Q. What do these antibiotics do?
A. They simply eradicate the carriage of the organism from those contacts, for a short while. This is done to prevent spread, rather than to protect those groups of people.

Q. Why aren’t antibiotics given to more people?
A. Research has shown that more widespread use of antibiotics does not reduce risks of further cases. It can increase the likelihood of drug resistant organisms. Giving antibiotics to a wider group can actually increase their chances of becoming ill from meningococcus, by killing off the "protective" bacteria living in our upper airways. Antibiotics simply eradicate the bugs from those people’s throat and nose for a few days. These individuals should remain as vigilant as everyone else about the early symptoms of meningitis, as they are still at risk.

You may find it reassuring to known that even doctors and nurses who have been treating the ill patient, only have the antibiotic if they have performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Q. Can I buy antibiotics from a chemist?
A. No - as with all antibiotics, they are prescription only drugs and cannot be bought over the counter.

Q. I am still very worried and have other questions to ask?
A. For general questions you can telephone the 24 hour Meningitis Helpline on 0808 80 10 388 (Freephone)

Further information


This article published on
08 February 2006

Next review date 2/1/2013


Children's health

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Immune system

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