Meningitis in adults: diagnosis and management

Intern Med J. 2018 Nov;48(11):1294-1307. doi: 10.1111/imj.14102.


Bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency. All clinicians who provide acute medical care require a sound understanding of the priorities of managing a patient with suspected meningitis during the first hour. These include obtaining blood cultures, performing lumbar puncture and initiating appropriate therapy, while avoiding harmful delays such as those that result from not administering treatment until neuroimaging has been performed. Despite the increasing availability of newer diagnostic techniques, the interpretation of cerebrospinal fluid parameters remains a vital skill for clinicians. International and local guidelines differ with regard to initial empirical therapy of bacterial meningitis in adults; the North American guideline recommends ceftriaxone and vancomycin for all patients, while the Australian, UK and European guidelines recommend that vancomycin only be added for patients who are more likely to have pneumococcal meningitis or who have a higher likelihood of being infected with a strain of Streptococcus pneumoniae with reduced susceptibility to ceftriaxone. Patients with risk factors for Listeria meningitis also require an anti-Listeria agent, such as benzylpenicillin, to be added to this treatment regimen. Dexamethasone should be a routine component of empirical therapy due to its proven role in reducing morbidity and mortality from pneumococcal meningitis.

Keywords: Neisseria meningitidis; Streptococcus pneumoniae; CT scan; cerebrospinal fluid; lumbar puncture; meningitis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Early Diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Leukocyte Count
  • Meningitis, Bacterial / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Meningitis, Bacterial / diagnosis*
  • Meningitis, Bacterial / drug therapy*
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Spinal Puncture / methods
  • Time Factors
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents