7 Common Meningitis Symptoms

Find out how to recognize this potentially deadly infection.

Meningitis is a tricky disease to identify based on symptoms alone. It can come from various pathogens, affecting the severity of the disease and the symptoms you experience. Knowing the signs of meningitis can help you catch the infection in its earliest stages and start treatment right away.

Meningitis causes swelling of the meninges, the membrane surrounding the brain and the spinal cord. If untreated, meningitis—particularly the kind caused by bacteria—can cause permanent disabilities and even become life-threatening.

Though the severity and treatment of meningitis vary based on your type, the telltale symptoms present much the same. Let's look closer at the most common meningitis symptoms and what to do if you think you have this potentially severe disease.

Meningitis Symptoms

There are two types of meningitis: viral and bacterial. Viral meningitis, which comes from certain viruses, is the most common type. Viral meningitis tends to be milder than other types. Most people get better on their own within 10 days or less.

Viral meningitis symptoms can look like bacterial meningitis, a much more dangerous type that can worsen quickly and cause serious complications. Read on to learn about the symptoms of viral and bacterial meningitis.

Severe Headache

Everyone occasionally gets headaches. In contrast, a meningitis headache is more severe than your average headache.

"What makes me think about meningitis is a headache," Dhanashri Miskin, MD, a neuroimmunologist with Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, told 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 worsens when lying flat is a concerning meningitis symptom. The pressure in your head may be too high, said Dr. Miskin. 

"At that point, the patient would usually go to the ER because the headache is so severe," added Dr. Miskin. 


A fever is another hallmark symptom of meningitis. A fever is one of many ways your body fights off infection by making it difficult for the virus or bacteria to survive in your body.

With meningitis, the fever usually comes about suddenly. See a healthcare provider right away if you have a sudden fever and other symptoms of meningitis.

According to Dr. Miskin, people with meningitis often present with a fever, which she defined as a temperature reading of over 100.4 degrees.

Stiff Neck

Viruses and bacteria do not bring typical meningitis symptoms. Instead, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord causes meningitis symptoms. A super stiff neck can be a sign of that inflammation.

You likely have a stiff neck if you find it difficult, or impossible, to lower your chin to your chest. A stiff neck, combined with headache and fever, may indicate that you have meningitis.

Nausea or Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting are also meningitis symptoms, especially if 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, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic, told Health. "It's more about when you see several of these symptoms altogether, at the same time, in a syndrome. That's when you start saying, 'Hey, it's meningitis.'"

Light and Sound Sensitivity

People with meningitis often present with photophobia, or extreme sensitivity to light. Photophobia stems from irritation of the meninges located at the base of the skull, triggering discomfort. 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," said Dr. Esper.

Meningitis Rash

Purple or red pin-prick spots on the skin can be a symptom of late-stage meningococcal septicemia, also called meningococcemia. When bacteria enter the bloodstream and damage the walls of the blood vessels, a rash may pop up.

The toxins can damage blood vessels, then leak blood into the surrounding tissue, causing a "meningitis rash."

While a variety of viruses and other agents can cause a rash, you can discern if your skin issue is from meningitis with the help of a transparent drinking glass. A rash that does not fade when you press it against your skin may indicate meningitis.

That type of rash is a medical emergency, and you should get to the hospital as soon as you can.

Confusion and Seizures

Lethargy, confusion, seizures, and disorientation are alarming meningitis symptoms that you should address right away. The longer someone with meningitis goes without treatment, the greater the risk of complications. With bacterial meningitis, illness can rapidly progress in a matter of hours.

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

What To Do if You Have Meningitis Symptoms

Do not ignore possible meningitis symptoms. Your symptoms can worsen quickly and, in some cases, become fatal. Get in touch with a healthcare provider right away.

To properly diagnose meningitis, a healthcare provider must test your spinal fluid by doing a lumbar puncture, or a spinal tap. Other diagnostic procedures for meningitis include a CT scan and blood tests.

"We will put you on antibiotics until all our tests come back proving you don't have [bacterial meningitis] because we do not like playing catch-up when it comes to treating an infection in and around the brain," said Dr. Esper.

Treatment for Meningitis

Expect intravenous (IV) antibiotics if the lab work reveals you have bacterial meningitis. Those antibiotics may be either the type you are already taking or a different kind that can target the specific bacteria.

Antibiotic treatment may include:

  • Penicillin
  • Ampicillin
  • Ceftriaxone

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

A healthcare provider may take you off antibiotics completely and advise recovering at home if the results show your meningitis is from a virus.

A Quick Review

Viral and bacterial meningitis symptoms are the same, but bacterial meningitis is more severe and can be fatal. It is essential to recognize the symptoms to receive treatment as soon as possible.

Common meningitis symptoms include headache, fever, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting, light and sound sensitivity, rash, and neurological symptoms. See a healthcare provider right away if you are having symptoms of meningitis.

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10 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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