Meningitis factsheet


Three layers of tissue protect the brain and spinal cord. 

They include the:

  1. pia mater – the inner layer that sits next to the brain
  2. arachnoid – the inner layer that is filled with fluid and acts like a cushion
  3. dura mater – the tough, outer layer that sits closest to the skull.

These layers are called the meninges.

Meningitis is a condition where the meninges become irritated and inflamed.

Meningitis can be caused by:

  • viral infection
  • bacterial infection
  • fungal infection
  • cancer
  • head injuries.

Meningitis can be a life-threatening condition and is a medical emergency. If you think your child is showing signs of meningitis, call an ambulance on triple zero (000) or go to your nearest emergency department.

 Signs and symptoms

Symptoms of meningitis are general and may look like other illnesses.

Common symptoms include:

  • a high fever
  • irritability
  • drowsiness
  • being “floppy”
  • vomiting and loss of appetite
  • headache
  • changes in how they breathe
  • seizures
  • a rash that looks spotty or bruised.

Babies and younger children who cannot speak might have symptoms like:

  • a bulging spot on the head
  • a cry that sounds different than usual.

Older children may be able to tell you about symptoms that they can feel, like:

  • a bad headache
  • a stiff neck
  • confusion
  • light hurting their eyes
  • pain when walking.

Meningitis can be a life-threatening condition and is a medical emergency. If you think your child is showing signs of meningitis, call an ambulance on triple zero (000) or go to your nearest emergency department.


Your child’s doctor will check their symptoms and medical history. If the doctor thinks your child has meningitis, they will refer your child to the nearest hospital for testing.

Meningitis is diagnosed by taking a sample of cerebrospinal fluid, found around your child’s spine. The procedure used to take the fluid sample is called a lumbar puncture


Children with meningitis are usually treated in hospitals, depending on what has caused the meningitis and how severe the symptoms are.

Bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics that are given straight into your child’s vein using an intravenous (IV) catheter.

Viral meningitis is usually treated by managing the symptoms with rest, fluids, and pain relief. Most children with viral meningitis recover completely. 


Bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis happens when bacteria that usually live in the nose or throat enter your child’s bloodstream and cause infection in the meninges.

Two common types of bacteria that can cause meningitis are:

  1. meningococcus

    the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease. This bacteria can be passed on to other children, but the risk is lowered with the meningococcal vaccination

  2. pneumococcus

    the bacteria that cause pneumococcal disease. This bacteria is rarely passed on to other children, and the risk is lowered with the pneumococcal vaccination.

Your child will need regular check-ins with their doctor after treatment to ensure they are well and don’t have any long-term issues with things like hearing. 

Viral meningitis

Viral meningitis happens when a virus causes infection in the meninges. Viral meningitis is usually less severe, except for cases where there is inflammation in the brain. Inflammation in the brain is called encephalitis.

 Viral illnesses which can cause viral meningitis or encephalitis include: 

Your child will receive free vaccination for measles, mumps, and polio for free as part of the National Immunisation Program in Australia.

Viral meningitis can also be caused by enteroviruses that enter the mouth and cause infection. Enteroviruses are found in saliva, mucus and poo and can spread when food and drink is contaminated. 

Washing your hands with soap and water before and after touching food, body fluids, and other people can help prevent the spread of viruses.

Last updated Tuesday 12th March 2024


This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024