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What is Meningitis?

Meningitis is an illness where the coverings of the brain and spinal cord become inflamed. It can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or other agents. Viral meningitis is rarely serious and is not helped by antibiotics. Bacterial meningitis is less common than viral meningitis, but is a serious illness and needs urgent treatment with antibiotics. The most common of the bacteria that cause meningitis is the meningococcus. These bacteria can also cause blood poisoning (septicaemia), which is the more dangerous form of the disease. The term meningococcal disease refers to both the meningitis and septicaemia forms of the disease caused by the bacteria.

Meningococcal bacteria can be divided into several groups. Since the introduction of vaccination programmes against the bacteria the incidence of group C bacteria infection has declined markedly. However, sporadic cases of meningococcal meningitis due to other groups can still arise.


The early signs of meningitis and septicaemia are non-specific and similar to those of flu and other viral infections. This makes diagnosis very difficult.

However, someone with meningitis will become very ill. The illness may progress over one or two days, but it can develop very rapidly sometimes in a matter of hours.

The signs and symptoms are shown below (not all of these symptoms may show at once):

  • Headache
  • Fever, cold hands and feet
  • Vomiting
  • Neck stiffness, joint pains
  • Drowsiness or confusion – coma
  • Dislike of bright lights
  • Rash of red-purple spots or bruises (The rash is due to the septicaemia and does not fade when pressed firmly e.g. with a glass.)

To check symptoms and for more information see: Meningitis Signs and Symptoms in Children | Meningitis Now

  • Overall more than 90% of people who get meningococcal disease recover.
  • However, the disease can kill in hours if not treated.

Who to contact

  • Seek urgent medical help if you are concerned about yourself or others
  • Call 999 or take the person to the nearest A&E department in an emergency.

Guidance for staff

The University has produced Meningitis Guidelines for staff. [Link to Meningococcal Meningitis Guidelines]

Vaccination against Meningitis

All students are strongly advised to have the MenACWY conjugate vaccine before arriving at Cambridge.

Find out more information about the MenACWY vaccination.