Is meningitis seasonal?

January 2023

Meningitis during the winter.

Meningitis (the inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord) and septicaemia (the blood poisoning form of the disease), are very serious diseases that can affect anyone of any age.

Bacteria are one of the most common, severe causes of these illnesses and can kill within hours. Cases can, and do, occur at any time of year. But in the UK and Ireland, occurrences of meningitis and septicaemia caused by two major bacterial causes of the disease, meningococcal and pneumococcal bacteria, typically rise during the winter months.

So why do meningitis and septicaemia cases rise during the winter in the UK and Ireland?

  • Time spent in close contact increases

    Once the clocks change and the temperature drops people begin spending longer periods indoors in close proximity. This allows the bacteria to spread more rapidly, particularly through coughing, sneezing, and kissing.

  • Common winter viruses, such as flu, make us more susceptible to illness including meningitis.

    Most of us will be exposed to the bacteria which can cause meningitis at some point in our lives without ever becoming ill. Higher rates of bacterial meningitis have been observed following increased rates of influenza. The exact reason for this is unknown, but there are several possibilities. Being unwell with flu may make it easier for the bacteria which cause meningitis, to occupy the nose and throat, or if the lining protecting these areas becomes damaged, to invade the blood stream. It is also possible that the flu weakens our immune systems, leaving us more susceptible to other illnesses, playing a part in increasing our risk of getting meningitis.

Why is the risk greater this winter?

Potentially, we could be facing the perfect storm, because:

  • The pandemic has created unpredictable disease patterns

    The pandemic restrictions we all became used to, like social distancing, curbed the spread of many common viruses and the bacteria that can cause life-threatening illnesses like meningitis. Lack of exposure to these germs has resulted in much less disease. But it has also meant that the population has not had the opportunity to develop some immunity, which usually occurs through harmlessly carrying the bacteria in the nose and throat after being exposed. Disease patterns are now more unpredictable than at any stage in our lifetimes because the population is more vulnerable and has less immunity to many bacteria and viruses than it has been in the past. Immunisations provide exposure to viruses and bacteria in a safe way and this is why taking up all the immunisations available to you is so important.

  • Routine immunisations schedules have been disrupted by the pandemic.

    Meningitis can affect anyone, anywhere, at any time, but some groups are at greater risk than others. Infants, young children, teenagers and young adults are among those at higher risk. Every vaccination in the UK immunisation schedule for babies offers protection against some form of meningitis. But the pandemic severely disrupted many routine vaccination programmes across the world, leaving more people at risk.

    Figures from the UK Health Security Agency also show that around one in 10 young adults of university age may have missed their free MenACWY vaccination (usually given in Years 9 or 10 of secondary school), leaving them unprotected and at risk of passing the bacteria on to the wider community. If you think your child may have missed it, or you are unsure what immunisations they may have had, contact their GP to check their vaccination status. They will be able to provide guidance on what may be needed and how to arrange it.

Winter is peak meningitis season in the UK and Ireland.

Ill child in bed

How can you prevent meningitis?

  • Ensure those that matter to you are vaccinated

    The best way to prevent meningitis is through vaccination. Vaccines are available in the UK and Ireland to protect against some of the major causes of meningitis and septicaemia, including meningococcal and pneumococcal vaccines.

  • Be aware of the symptoms

    There are not yet vaccines available to protect against every type of bacterial meningitis, and protection is not lifelong. So, it is important to be able to spot the signs and symptoms and remain vigilant.

    The early symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia can be the same as many other common illnesses, like cold, flu and even COVID, so it is important to watch out for any signs of deterioration to a person’s health. Always trust your instincts and get medical help if you are still concerned, no matter how long it has been since you or your child last saw a medical professional.

Resources for those most at risk of meningitis

It is important to remember, meningitis is more than just a rash – which doesn’t always appear. Symptoms can develop in any order and not everyone gets all of them.

If in doubt, get professional medical advice and say you suspect meningitis.

It could save someone’s life.

About the author

Claire Wright
Evidence and Policy Manager (Prevention)

My name is Claire and my role as Evidence and Policy Manager (Prevention) involves working on the educational materials that MRF distributes to health professionals and the public, making sure that it is up to date with findings from current research.

I also try to answer specific medical questions we receive about meningitis and septicaemia and promote the charity's work at conferences around the country.

It’s very rewarding to work on awareness literature which may go on to help save lives and support those who have been affected by this disease.

Tel: 0333 405 6259