Meningitis can cause various symptoms, including a stiff neck. A person should seek treatment right away if they believe they or their child may have meningitis.

Meningitis is an infection that affects the protective membranes that surround the spinal cord and brain, called the meninges.

It can be serious if a person does not seek treatment quickly. Meningitis can cause septicemia, a life-threatening blood poisoning that can permanently damage the nerves and brain.

There are several vaccines available that can protect against meningitis.

This article examines the connection between meningitis and a stiff neck. We also discuss when people should contact a doctor and the potential treatments for meningitis.

A person with a stiff neck, one of the symptoms of meningitis.Share on Pinterest
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A stiff neck is one of the symptoms of meningitis.

The meninges are the protective layers that surround the brain and spinal cord. The spinal meninges cover the spinal cord and protect it from directly touching the neck, cervical spine, chest, and thoracic spine. The cranial meninges cover the brain and cushion it from direct contact with the skull.

The meninges have three layers:

  • Pia mater: The innermost layer attaches to and lines the brain and spinal cord. The pia mater is the thinnest and most delicate of the meningeal layers.
  • Arachnoid mater: The middle layer contains collagen and elastic tissue in a web-like structure. The cerebrospinal fluid runs beneath the arachnoid mater in an area called the subarachnoid space, above the pia mater.
  • Dura mater: The outermost and most durable, toughest layer. It comprises dense fibrous tissue to provide protection and is the only meningeal layer sensitive to pain.

In meningitis, the cerebrospinal fluid and the surrounding meninges — the arachnoid mater and pia mater — are susceptible to infection and inflammation. The infection can also activate the fibers of the dura mater, which can contribute to neck pain and stiffness.

The meninges run from the brain and cover the spinal cord until just before the lower back. A person’s neck is the most mobile area that meninges cover.

When the meninges become inflamed and painful from movement, a person will notice this in their neck. This is why a person with meningitis often has a stiff, painful neck.

A person should seek medical advice as soon as possible if they think that they or their child has meningitis. A person should not wait for a rash or other additional symptoms to develop and should see a doctor at the earliest possible stage of the infection.

A bacterial or viral infection is the most common cause of meningitis. Bacterial meningitis is rarer but more severe than viral meningitis.

A person can contract meningitis from someone else sneezing or coughing or from kissing. A person usually catches it from someone who has the virus or bacteria in their throat but is not showing symptoms themselves.

If a person thinks they or their child have had contact with someone with meningitis, they should seek medical advice.

A doctor will usually send a person with suspected meningitis to the hospital for tests to confirm the diagnosis and check whether the infection is viral or bacterial.

If a person has bacterial meningitis, they may require hospital treatment for about a week.

A doctor may treat the infection by:

  • giving the person oxygen via a face mask
  • injecting antibiotics directly into a vein
  • injecting fluids directly into a vein

If a person has viral meningitis, they will generally look after themselves at home and usually recover without treatment within 7–10 days. A person should get plenty of rest and may feel better after taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication and antinausea medication to relieve symptoms.


There are currently no vaccines against viral meningitis, but four types of vaccines protect against the four types of bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis. These are:

  • pneumococcal vaccines, which help protect against Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • meningococcal vaccines, which help protect against Neisseria meningitidis
  • Haemophilus influenzae serotype b (Hib) vaccines, which help protect against Hib
  • bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine, which helps protect against tuberculosis

People should make sure they are up to date with their scheduled vaccinations.

Viral and bacterial meningitis may present different symptoms.

Viral meningitis

Babies often display the following symptoms of viral meningitis:

  • lethargy
  • fever
  • difficulty eating
  • irritability
  • trouble waking or sleepiness

Common symptoms of viral meningitis in children and adults include:

  • stiff neck
  • lethargy
  • fever
  • headache
  • sensitivity to light
  • sleepiness or trouble waking
  • lack of appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • irritability

Bacterial meningitis

The symptoms of bacterial meningitis in newborns and babies include:

  • vomiting
  • trouble feeding
  • being slow or inactive
  • being irritable
  • a bulging fontanelle, the soft spot on a baby’s head
  • abnormal reflexes

For children and adults, symptoms of bacterial meningitis may include:

  • sensitivity to light
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • confusion
  • fever
  • stiff neck
  • headache

If a person has viral meningitis, they will usually get better without treatment, and people rarely suffer any long-term effects of the infection.

If a person has bacterial meningitis, they will usually make a full recovery if they receive treatment quickly.

A person could experience severe long-term complications from bacterial meningitis. These include:

  • recurring seizures, or epilepsy
  • vision or hearing loss, either partial or total
  • memory and concentration problems
  • problems with coordination, such as balance and movement issues
  • loss of limbs, as a doctor may have to amputate affected limbs in some cases

Meningitis can cause a stiff neck. This is because it causes inflammation and infection in the meninges surrounding the brain and spine. A person will likely feel the stiffness from the inflammation most noticeably in their neck, which is the most mobile area that the meninges cover.

Meningitis can be severe, especially if a bacterial infection causes it. A person should contact a doctor as soon as possible if they suspect they or their child have meningitis or have been with a person who has the infection. There is a much better chance of a full recovery if a person receives treatment quickly.

A person will usually recover from viral meningitis at home within 7–10 days and may use OTC medications to treat symptoms.

People often make a full recovery from meningitis, especially viral meningitis. A person may experience severe problems from bacterial meningitis, including seizures, vision or hearing loss, and coordination problems.