Hospital stays for people with bacterial meningitis are usually 1–2 weeks but can be longer if there are complications. Full recovery can take several months.

Bacterial meningitis is an uncommon but serious infection of the tissues lining your brain and spinal cord. In the United States, most meningitis is viral. Only about 22% of all meningitis cases are due to bacteria.

Bacterial meningitis used to be more common in the United States, especially in infants and young children. But in recent decades, routine immunizations have reduced cases. Newborns and young infants are still at the highest risk, but bacterial meningitis can affect any age group, including healthy young adults.

Bacterial meningitis is always a serious medical emergency. Still, with rapid diagnosis and treatment, most people can fully recover.

Bacterial meningitis remains a life threatening disease. However, with prompt treatment, survival rates are typically 85–90%. Some studies in children found rates higher than 95%.

If you have bacterial meningitis, you’ll need to go to the hospital to receive intravenous (IV) antibiotics. You’ll usually need antibiotics for 7–14 days, but this could be longer, depending on the type of bacteria. You may start to improve within 1–3 days of starting treatment, but many people stay in hospital throughout their antibiotic course.

Research from 2016 shows that adults with bacterial meningitis stay in hospital for about 8–11 days, but some stay for more than 2 weeks. You might need to stay longer if complications occur.

After hospital discharge, your recovery period may continue for weeks to months. You’ll need close follow-up with a primary care physician.

Many people will need hearing and vision testing. Some may also need specialty care, such as visits with a:

With help and guidance from a doctor, you can determine the best pace for return to school or work.

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis

Hallmark symptoms of meningitis in adults include:

  • a fever
  • a headache
  • a stiff neck
  • altered mental status, such as confusion

While less than half of adults experience all the above symptoms, about 95% experience at least two. Other possible symptoms include:

  • nausea, vomiting, or both
  • focal neurologic deficits (sudden weakness or paralysis, loss of speech, or double vision)
  • rash (especially a bruise-like petechial or purpuric rash)
  • sensitivity to light
  • seizure

Infants often have different or more subtle symptoms, such as:

  • irritability
  • lethargy
  • poor feeding
  • difficulty breathing
  • a bulging soft spot on the head (fontanel)
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If a doctor suspects bacterial meningitis, they’ll immediately start IV antibiotics and steroids. IV antibiotics are necessary since oral antibiotics can’t reach the infection well enough.

Doctors will choose the best antibiotic based on your age, health history, and preliminary test results. They may change the antibiotics once they identify the specific bacteria causing the infection.

You’ll need antibiotic treatment for 7–14 days, depending on the type of bacteria and how you respond to treatment. Some types of bacteria require longer treatment. Other complications, such as sepsis, may also prolong treatment.

Bacterial meningitis can make you seriously ill. You may require admission to an intensive care unit (ICU) for additional medications, mechanical ventilation, or even surgery. If serious complications of meningitis arise, they usually appear within the first 2–3 days of treatment.

Bacterial meningitis requires emergency care

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis appear suddenly and progress quickly, so early diagnosis and rapid treatment are critical. If symptoms of meningitis are present, immediately contact a doctor or visit an emergency department. They can perform testing that includes:

Most people with bacterial meningitis eventually return to regular activities.

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that 70% of children with bacterial meningitis recover without any long-term complications, if they receive prompt treatment.

Still, it can take many months to recover fully. A 2022 study interviewed adult patients with bacterial meningitis 12 months after hospital discharge. Of the respondents, 87% had returned to work, but many reported ongoing symptoms like headaches, problems with sleep, or concentration difficulties.

Because bacterial meningitis is such a serious illness, long-term complications can occur even with treatment. Research estimates that in developed countries, about one-third of people with bacterial meningitis may develop long-term complications, such as:

  • hearing loss
  • seizures
  • cognitive impairment
  • speech problems
  • problems with movement, balance, or coordination
  • vision problems
  • hydrocephalus
  • behavioral and learning difficulties
  • limb amputation

Your risk of complication varies depending on your age, underlying health, and how quickly you start treatment. Despite attempts, no single test, finding, or score can predict complications.

How long are you in the hospital with bacterial meningitis?

Many people with bacterial meningitis stay in the hospital for at least 1 week. But the length of hospital stay can vary, depending on factors like your age, response to treatment, complications, and the type of bacteria that caused the infection.

How long can you have meningitis without knowing?

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis appear suddenly and progress rapidly, often within 24 hours. The infection does not get better on its own. People with bacterial meningitis need urgent evaluation and treatment right away.

Symptoms of viral meningitis can be milder and slower to progress.

How long does it take to recover from viral meningitis?

Viruses are the most common cause of infectious meningitis in many countries. Some cases of viral meningitis are more serious than others, especially in newborns. But in most cases, viral meningitis is milder than bacterial and is associated with shorter hospital stays.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people with viral meningitis get better on their own within 7–10 days.

Bacterial meningitis is a rare but serious medical emergency that needs urgent medical evaluation and prompt antibiotic therapy. Even with treatment, bacterial meningitis is a life threatening illness. Hospital stays of 1–2 weeks are common.

Most people with bacterial meningitis eventually recover and return to regular activities, but long-term complications can occur. You may want to work with your primary care physician after you leave hospital to screen for and treat long-term complications.