Progress and Challenges in Bacterial Meningitis: A Review

JAMA. 2022 Dec 6;328(21):2147-2154. doi: 10.1001/jama.2022.20521.


Importance: Bacterial meningitis is a worldwide health problem, with incidence rates ranging from approximately 0.9 per 100 000 individuals per year in high-income countries to 80 per 100 000 individuals per year in low-income countries. In low-income countries, bacterial meningitis has a mortality rate of up to 54%. Up to 24% of those who survive develop chronic neurological sequelae, such as hearing loss or focal neurological deficits.

Observations: Streptococcus pneumoniae causes about 72% and Neisseria meningitidis causes about 11% of cases of bacterial meningitis in people older than 16 years. Escherichia coli and Streptococcus agalactiae cause about 35% of cases of early-onset neonatal meningitis. In adults, risk factors for bacterial meningitis include older age and immunosuppressive conditions. The most common symptoms are headache (84%), fever (74%), stiff neck (74%), altered mental status (median [IQR] Glasgow Coma Scale score of 11 [9-14] on a scale ranging from 3-15), and nausea (62%). Brain imaging should be performed before lumbar puncture if patients present with altered mental status, focal neurological deficits, papilledema, or history of immunocompromising conditions or central nervous system disease. Bacterial meningitis should be suspected if any of the following are present on admission: serum leukocytes greater than 10.0 ×109/L, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leukocytes greater than 2000/μL, CSF granulocytes greater than 1180/μL, CSF protein greater than 2.2 g/L, CSF glucose less than 34.23 mg/dL, or fever. A positive Gram stain result for bacteria is diagnostic, but the sensitivity of a positive Gram stain result for bacterial meningitis ranges from 50% to 90%. In countries in which the prevalence of ceftriaxone-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae exceeds 1%, vancomycin and ceftriaxone are the empirical antibiotics of choice, with the addition of ampicillin in neonates, older patients, and immunocompromised patients. Adjunctive dexamethasone should be used in patients with bacterial meningitis but stopped if Listeria monocytogenes is confirmed.

Conclusions and relevance: Bacterial meningitis affects approximately 0.9 per 100 000 individuals to 80 per 100 000 individuals per year and has a mortality rate as high as 54%. First-line therapy is prompt empirical intravenous antibiotic therapy and adjunctive dexamethasone.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Intravenous
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / administration & dosage
  • Dexamethasone / administration & dosage
  • Glucocorticoids / administration & dosage
  • Humans
  • Meningitis, Bacterial* / diagnosis
  • Meningitis, Bacterial* / drug therapy
  • Meningitis, Bacterial* / epidemiology
  • Meningitis, Bacterial* / microbiology


  • Dexamethasone
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents