Meningitis is a condition that results from inflammation of your meninges, which are layers of protective tissue that surround your brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can be due to a bacterial, fungal, or viral infection—or even no infection at all.
Symptoms of meningitis will often begin similarly to that of a cold or flu and may progress depending on how severe your condition is and what’s causing your meningitis. While some cases of meningitis can heal on their own, other types of meningitis can be serious and sometimes even life-threatening.
That’s why knowing the symptoms is so important so you know when to reach out for medical care if and when needed.
Meningitis can cause symptoms that closely resemble that of the flu or another infectious disease. Most of the time, these symptoms can develop or worsen over the course of a few days. If you have meningitis, you may be experiencing:
- High fever
- Neck stiffness
- Back or stomach pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite and thirst
- Shortness of breath
Keep in mind: recognizing that these are signs of meningitis can be difficult at first—especially because these symptoms can mimic symptoms of a cold, flu, or other infections. You may not even realize that you might have meningitis until you begin to experience neurological (brain-related) symptoms.
Cognitive and Neurological Symptoms
Inflammation of the meninges can cause a variety of symptoms that affect your brain’s ability to function as usual. Alongside common infection-related symptoms, you may also experience:
- Trouble focusing
- Seeing double or having blurry vision
- Sensitivity to bright light
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Facial weakness
- Drowsiness or having trouble waking up
If your symptoms of meningitis—especially bacterial meningitis—progress, you may begin to experience more severe neurological symptoms. These include seizures or going into a coma (which occurs when a person is alive but not able to respond to their surroundings).
When severe symptoms are left untreated, meningitis can be fatal. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms, please reach out to your healthcare provider, visit your local emergency department or urgent care, or call 911 immediately for medical support.
While a skin rash can develop in all types of meningitis, a rash is often a late-stage symptom of bacterial meningitis. The bacteria can damage capillaries (or, blood vessels) which can cause blood to leak from the capillaries and produce a rash.
A skin rash may begin as small, red dots or pinpricks that slowly develop into blotchy areas that appear red, purple, or brown in color. This rash can appear anywhere, but commonly occurs on your face, stomach, and back. If you press on the rash, the discolored areas of your skin remain the same color. This is important to know because noticing the change in color (or lack thereof) can help distinguish a meningitis rash from other skin rashes.
Symptoms in Children
Infants and young children with meningitis tend to have symptoms that more closely resemble a viral or bacterial illness. Generally, they experience fewer neurological complications like light sensitivity, trouble concentrating, and issues with their vision or other senses.
If you suspect your child may have an infection, common meningitis symptoms in children typically include:
- Crying or feeling irritable
- High fever
- Poor feeding
- Sleeping too much
- Feeling sluggish or not being active
- A small bulge on the top of their head
In some cases, it can be difficult for your child’s healthcare provider (e.g., a pediatrician) to diagnose your child with the condition because meningitis symptoms can often mirror symptoms of other illnesses and infections.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
You should see a healthcare provider if your general illness symptoms (such as fever, nausea, or fatigue) aren’t improving with rest or over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. If you begin to notice symptoms such as neck pain, blurred vision, problems moving, or other neurologic-related complications, it’s good practice to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Meningitis symptoms can closely resemble those of a brain abscess or encephalitis—a condition that causes your brain to swell up. All of these conditions can be severe, so it’s especially important to receive prompt medical care.
Sometimes, children are too young to communicate or have difficulty expressing their concerns. If you notice symptoms such as inactivity, increased irritability or fatigue, loss of appetite, or issues with movement and control, call their healthcare provider or visit your local urgent care.
A Quick Review
Meningitis is an infection that occurs when the meninges—or the membrane and layers of tissue that protect your brain and spinal cord—become inflamed. Even though symptoms of meningitis can go away on their own, this illness can also quickly progress and cause severe and sometimes life-threatening complications.
Knowing the symptoms is a good first step so you know when it’s time to receive medical attention if and when you or a loved one may need it. If symptoms begin to progress or you or a loved one are experiencing concerning signs of illness, talk to your healthcare provider as soon as possible to rule out other conditions, receive an accurate diagnosis, and begin treatment to improve symptoms.
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