Meningitis – know the differences between viral and bacterial

In support of World Health Day we explore the different forms of meningitis and what you should be looking out for


Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. The most common germs that cause meningitis are viruses and bacteria, making up the two forms of the disease – viral meningitis, which affects around 5000 people per year, as opposed to around 3400 bacterial cases per year.


Bacterial meningitis is a severe disease that needs urgent medical attention, but the symptoms of viral meningitis can be very similar. It’s important to get a diagnosis quickly, which can be done via a lumbar puncture (fluid taken from the base of the spine), which you’ll be able to get at hospital. 

Viral Meningitis

Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis and, although rarely life-threatening, it can make people very unwell. Many people who have experienced viral meningitis feel that they are dismissed as having the ‘milder’ form of meningitis and that very little is understood about the recovery and after-effects.

Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis can be life-threatening and needs urgent medical attention. Most people who suffer from bacterial meningitis recover, but a third of survivors will be left with life-changing after-effects including deafness, epilepsy and learning difficulties and one in ten will die.


While you may notice a rash with viral meningitis, a rash is usually associated with bacterial meningitis. A rash that does not fade under pressure (often a glass is used to test this) is a sign of meningococcal septicaemia. It is normally referred to as the meningitis rash.

If someone is ill and getting worse do not wait for a rash, it can appear late or not at all. A fever with spots or a rash that does not fade under pressure is a medical emergency.

The Meningitis Trust says you should “trust your instinct, if you’re concerned go straight to the hospital, call an ambulance or speak to your GP.”


Above are the signs to look out for. Download a printable version here.

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