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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 it is a serious illness and needs urgent treatment with antibiotics. The bacteria can also cause blood poisoning (septicaemia), which is the more dangerous form of the disease.  90% of people who get bacterial meningitis recover, but it can kill within hours if not treated.


The early signs of meningitis and septicaemia can be 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
  • Vomiting
  • Neck stiffness, joint pains
  • Drowsiness or confusion – coma
  • Dislike of bright lights

Rash of red-purple spots or bruises, which does not fade when pressed firmly e.g. with a glass.

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

Meningitis Guidelines for staff are available on the Senior Tutor’s website

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.