Symptoms of meningitis

When meningitis strikes, it can feel like your typical run-of-the-mill bad headache or flu. But the difference is that it’s an infection that spreads — and fast. If you or someone you know is experiencing these signs and symptoms of meningitis, get immediate medical attention.

Boy with fever

meningitis defined

Meningitis is inflammation of the membranes surrounding your brain and spinal cord, usually due to infection. The onset of symptoms depends on the organism that is causing the infection.

When someone is infected with bacterial meningitis, symptoms usually come on quickly and worsen within a couple hours, often leading to severe damage or death. The more common and treatable viral meningitis progresses a bit more slowly, typically growing worse over a few days. Determining which form of meningitis a person has is impossible without spinal fluid testing (aka spinal tap), so don’t try to diagnosis symptoms yourself.

While there’s no need to see a doctor at the first sign of a headache or fever,  you should see a doctor immediately if you or anyone in your family experiences the following symptoms that seem to worsen rapidly.

signs & Symptoms of meningitis

In children and adults over the age of 2, the first signs of both viral and bacterial meningitis are common but intense ailments including the following:

  • Severe headache
  • High fever
  • Stiff & painful neck (especially when trying to touch the chin to chest)
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Sleepiness/ fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light or eye pain
  • Tingling and/or weakness throughout the body
  • Rash

Meningitis signs in newborns & babies

Detecting meningitis in babies can be more difficult, but here are a few signs:

  • High fever
  • Constant, shrill crying
  • Excessive sleepiness or irritability
  • Inactivity or sluggishness
  • Poor feeding
  • Rash
  • Vomiting
  • A bulge in the soft spot on top of the head (fontanel)
  • Stiffness in the body and neck
  • Seizures

As always, this article is not intended to diagnose or treat any illness or disease mentioned.

More on meningitis

What is meningitis?
What is meningococcal disease?
Bacterial vs. viral meningitis


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