What Are the Symptoms of Meningitis? Doctors Explain How to Recognize This Potentially Deadly Infection

Collectively, they can signal the possibility of serious illness.

Meningitis symptoms can often look a lot like other less serious illnesses. Early on, the disease can cause symptoms that mimic the flu, according to the Mayo Clinic.

But meningitis is nothing like the flu, nor other less severe illnesses it can mimic. It causes swelling of the meninges, the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Left untreated, meningitis—particularly the kind caused by bacteria—can leave you with permanent disabilities and even become life-threatening.

Though the severity and treatment of the disease vary based on the type of meningitis you have, the telltale symptoms present much the same. According to Claire Wright, evidence and policy manager at the UK's Meningitis Research Foundation, meningitis symptoms can appear in any order and not everyone will get all symptoms, which can come on over a few hours up to 1 or 2 days.

What Are the Symptoms of Meningitis? , Woman With Neckache with thermometer and signs of pain
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Knowing the signs of meningitis can help you catch this infection in its earliest stages and start treatment ASAP. Let's take a closer look at the most common meningitis symptoms, along with what to do if you think you have this potentially serious disease.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

Meningitis is a tricky disease to identify based on symptoms alone. It can come from a variety of pathogens, which can affect the severity of the disease and the symptoms you experience. Viral meningitis, which comes from certain viruses, is the most common type, and it tends to be more mild than other types of meningitis. Most people get better on their own within 10 days or less, according to the CDC.

However, the CDC notes that viral meningitis symptoms can look a lot like bacterial meningitis—a much more dangerous type of the disease that can worsen quickly and cause serious complications.

That's why it's important to get medical care right away if you experience any meningitis symptoms, such as:

Severe headache

While everyone occasionally gets headaches, a meningitis headache is severe and "seems different from normal," according to Mayo Clinic.

"What makes me think about meningitis is a headache," Dhanashri Miskin, MD, a neuroimmunologist with Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, tells Health. "Anyone that has a new onset headache; it's not like the headaches they get all the time."

A severe headache that wakes you up or that worsens when you're lying flat are both concerning meningitis symptoms suggesting that the pressure in your head is too high, says Dr. Miskin.

"At that point, the patient would usually go to the ER because the headache is so severe," she adds.

Fever

Fever is another hallmark symptom of meningitis. It's one of many ways your body tries to fight off an infection. According to Dr. Miskin, patients with the disease often present with a fever, which she defines as a temperature reading of over 100.4 degrees.

Stiff neck

Typical meningitis symptoms are not brought on by the germs that cause the disease, but rather the inflammation they cause to the brain and spinal cord. A super stiff neck can be a sign of that inflammation.

The Merck Manual defines a meningitis-related stiff neck as one where older children or adults find it difficult, or impossible, to lower their chin to their chest. Combined with headache and fever, this symptom can be an indication that you have meningitis.

Nausea or vomiting

Most people deal with an occasional stomach bug or food-related illness that makes them feel queasy and throw up. But nausea and vomiting are also meningitis symptoms, especially when a person has other signs of the infection.

"Anybody can get a headache, anybody can get a fever, anybody can have a vomiting episode," Frank Esper, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. "But it's more about when you see several of these symptoms all together, at the same time, in a syndrome. That's when you start saying, 'Hey, it's meningitis.'"

Light sensitivity

People with meningitis often present with photophobia, or an extreme sensitivity to light. This meningitis symptom stems from irritation of the meninges located at the base of the skull, spreading into the trigeminal, or facial nerve, and triggering discomfort, according to a 2012 report published in the Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology.

Along with photophobia, sound sensitivity is also possible. "The light bothers your eyes [and] sounds bother your ears because your brain is just so agitated that any stimulus just really causes pain," says Dr. Esper.

Meningitis rash

Purple or red pin-prick spots on the skin can be a symptom of meningococcal meningitis caused by toxins released by the meningococcal bacteria, according to the National Meningitis Association. The toxins can damage blood vessels, which then leak blood into the surrounding tissue, causing a "meningitis rash," says the Meningitis Research Foundation.

While there are a variety of viruses and other agents that can cause a rash, you can discern if your skin issue is from meningitis with the help of a transparent drinking glass (like the ones you probably have in your kitchen cabinet). If the rash doesn't fade when you press it against your skin, that's an indication that it's a meningitis symptom, the foundation adds.

"That would be considered a medical emergency, and you should get that person to the hospital as soon as you can," says Wright.

Confusion, seizures, and other meningitis symptoms

Lethargy, confusion, seizures, and disorientation are all considered alarming meningitis symptoms and should be addressed immediately. According to the Mayo Clinic, the longer that someone with meningitis goes without treatment, the greater risk of complications, especially in the case of bacterial meningitis, which can rapidly progress in a matter of hours.

"The inherent risk of letting meningitis play itself out is causing irreparable problems within the brain," explains Dr. Esper, "and anytime the brain gets infected or affected, that's a big problem."

What to do if you have meningitis symptoms

If you have meningitis symptoms, don't ignore them. Your symptoms can worsen quickly and, in some cases, become deadly, so get in touch with a medical professional right away.

To properly diagnose meningitis, a physician must test the spinal fluid of the affected individual by doing a lumbar puncture, or a spinal tap, as it's more commonly referred to.

According to Cleveland Clinic, other diagnostic procedures for meningitis include an MRI scan, CT scan, blood test, and nose or throat swab.

For anyone presenting with meningitis symptoms, Dr. Esper says time is of the essence. "We will put you on antibiotics until all our tests come back proving you don't have a bacteria because we do not like playing catch-up when it comes to treating an infection in and around the brain," he explains.

If the lab work reveals you have bacterial meningitis, expect to have an aggressive treatment including hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics (either the type you're already taking, or a different kind that can target the bacteria causing the infection).

"We start treating as quickly as possible," says Dr. Esper, "because we definitely know that the sooner you get treated for meningitis, the better you are at preventing death."

Or, if the results show your meningitis is from a virus, your doctor may take you off antibiotics completely and recommend recovering at home, per the CDC.

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