Meningitis is an infection that causes swelling in the membranes (meninges) that protect your brain and spinal cord. The infection ranges from mild to life threatening and can lead to severe long-term health effects, including hearing loss and nerve damage.

There are multiple types of meningitis. Viral is the most common and often resolves on its own. Bacterial meningitis is the most dangerous. It requires immediate hospitalization and a course of intravenous (IV) antibiotics over weeks.

It’s important to seek treatment immediately if you suspect any form of meningitis to reduce the risk of serious health outcomes, sepsis, and even death.

We’ll go over what types of antibiotics are used to treat bacterial meningitis, how this treatment works, and what side effects may occur.

Anyone who has bacterial meningitis needs to receive intravenous antibiotics in the hospital. Antibiotics treat many different types of bacterial infections. These medications kill the bacteria or stop them from growing in your body.

According to the CDC, key symptoms of bacterial meningitis in adults include:

In infants and babies, other symptoms can present:

  • not feeding enough
  • a bulging fontanel (“soft spot” on a baby’s head)
  • irregular or slow reflexes

Your doctor may start preemptive antibiotic therapy while waiting for confirmation about the type of infection you have. Several different tests can be used to diagnose bacterial meningitis.

These include:

A lumbar puncture is considered one of the best means of identifying the type of bacteria causing your meningitis infection. This test takes a sample of your cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

There are many types of bacteria that cause meningitis infection. Treatment has to be tailored for your specific disease cause, age, and other health factors.

Even delaying antibiotic treatment for bacterial meningitis by a few hours can increase the likelihood of mortality.

Antibiotics treat bacterial meningitis in both adults and children. Those with a known or suspected exposure to bacterial meningitis may also take antibiotics to avoid developing the infection.

Doctors may shift your treatment plan based on new information they gather about your infection.

Antibiotics for adults

While there’s overlap between antibiotics used to treat children and adults, some are only prescribed for adult use. This is because antibiotics can be hard on your body while trying to resolve a serious infection.

If you’re 18 or older, the first line of treatment for bacterial meningitis is ceftriaxone or cefotaxime.

Other antibiotics used after the first stage include:

  • ampicillin
  • penicillin G
  • vancomycin
  • meropenem
  • aztreonam
  • rifampicin
  • ciprofloxacin

Your doctor may adjust the type of antibiotics administered if you:

A course of antibiotic treatment for bacterial meningitis usually lasts anywhere from or longer, depending on the type of bacteria causing your infection.

Your antibiotic regimen may also look different if you have healthcare-associated meningitis. This can happen rarely as a complication from neurosurgery, or from the implantation of a medical device such as a cerebrospinal fluid shunt, or deep brain stimulation hardware.

Antibiotics for children

Infants and children are at particular risk for bacterial meningitis. Their immune systems are less developed and more vulnerable to infections.

The type of treatment they receive depends on their age and usually lasts between 1 to 3 weeks.

Newborns under 2 months may receive:

  • cefotaxime
  • benzylpenicillin

A child over 2 months may receive:

  • cefotaxime
  • ceftriaxone
  • vancomycin

Understanding Hib

Until a vaccine was introduced in the late 1980s, invasive Hib disease was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children. Since the vaccine, infection rates have gone down by more than 99 percent.

Hib is caused by the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae, which can cause ear infections, blood infections, and pneumonia in addition to meningitis.

The Hib vaccine has several different brand options. It’s usually given to newborns in several doses plus a booster, beginning at 2 months old.

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Antibiotics for exposure to bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis spreads through bodily fluids, including saliva. It can be transmitted if someone close to you coughs.

You may need to take a preventative course of antibiotics if exposed. Talk with your doctor if you believe you have a suspected or confirmed exposure. They’ll order tests and work with you to develop a plan.

Bacterial meningitis is always a medical emergency. You’ll need to be in the hospital during treatment.

Your doctor will want to determine the type of infection you have but may begin an antibiotic IV treatment while still waiting for test results.

An IV is an infusion of fluid or medication delivered through a tube or needle into your body. An IV will often go into the crook of your arm or back of your hand. A secure “port” and tape keep the IV in place.

In addition to antibiotics, you might also receive the following through an IV during your bacterial meningitis treatment:

  • a steroid to ease brain swelling
  • fluids to keep you hydrated
  • oxygen, if having trouble breathing

During your hospital stay, the medical team will carefully monitor your condition. They may routinely take your temperature and measure other vital signs. Depending on your symptoms and how well antibiotics are working, you may be in the hospital for a few days or longer.

Do corticosteroids help treat meningitis?

Research on the effectiveness of corticosteroids in treating bacterial meningitis is mixed. Corticosteroids reduce inflammation, and can be delivered orally, intravenously, or topically.

The corticosteroid dexamethasone has been found effective in treating bacterial meningitis when combined with antibiotics.

A 2015 study reported dexamethasone didn’t lower overall mortality, but reduced the rate of hearing loss in meningitis survivors. This finding only applied to patients in high-income countries, likely because their overall quality of care and medical supplies was higher.

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There are side effects you may experience while on antibiotics for bacterial meningitis. Some may be quite mild, while others may be very unpleasant.

These can include:

Antibiotic side effects can depend on your body’s response and the type of drug administered. Talk with your doctors about any side effects of the medication you experience. You may need to change your regimen.

In rare cases, people have a serious allergic reaction to an antibiotic. If you have trouble breathing or swelling in your throat, this may be a sign of anaphylaxis, a life threatening allergic reaction. Get emergency medical help immediately.

Recovery from bacterial meningitis once you leave the hospital often takes time. Don’t overexert yourself, and get plenty of rest. Talk with your doctor about any symptoms you’re experiencing, and stay in communication about how your recovery is going.

About 1 in 5 survivors of meningitis have a lasting health complication.

These include:

  • hearing loss
  • brain damage
  • nervous system damage
  • limb loss

This risk of long-term complications increases if bacterial meningitis goes untreated or if treatment is delayed.

There are vaccines to prevent bacterial meningitis, but not viral meningitis. Bacterial meningitis vaccines have been a key part of reducing the rate and severity of the infection’s spread across the world.

Vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective but can offer substantial protection. In the United States, meningitis vaccines are a part of routine vaccination for children and teens. The main vaccines are MenB and MenACWY, which work against common strains of the disease.

Here’s a breakdown of available vaccines and who should get them:

Bacterial strainVaccine name
neisseria meningitidis
MenB (Bexsero and Trumenba)
MenACWY (Menactra, Menveo, and MenQuadfi)
haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)Hib (ActHIB, Hiberix, and PedvaxHIB)
streptococcus pneumoniae
PCV13 (Prevnar 13), PPSV23 (Pneumovax 23), and recently PCV20 (Prevnar 20, for adults over 65)

Another important thing you can do to prevent meningitis is to clean your hands regularly. This includes always washing your hands after:

  • using the bathroom
  • changing diapers or encountering fecal matter (like from pets)
  • when making food

Bacterial meningitis is a serious infection that requires hospitalization and treatment with antibiotics. Delaying treatment can increase the risk of dying or having serious long-term health complications.

You’ll receive antibiotics by IV, as well as other medications and fluids to reduce your symptoms. Treatment may last one to several weeks.

Contact your doctor immediately if you suspect bacterial meningitis exposure or infection. Stay up to date on your or your child’s vaccination schedule to further protect against the disease.