Common Signs and Symptoms of Meningitis

It’s easy to mistake the early signs and symptoms of meningitis with the flu due to the fact that it causes the same achy stiffness, headache, and high fever. However, meningitis is a condition that causes inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord, which means it’s much, much more serious than just a case of the flu. Meningitis is typically triggered by a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection, which if left untreated, can become life threatening.

If you suspect meningitis in yourself or someone in your family, the following 14 signs may be evident…

1. Stiffness

Stiffness of the neck and back occur because meningitis spurs the inflammation of the membranes (or meninges) that encase the brain and spinal cord. It’s this swelling that causes the discomfort and stiffness. If you experience a sudden fever and headache along with a stiff neck, you could have a form of meningitis and should seek treatment and testing to confirm or rule out the cause.

Viral meningitis is often brought on by an enterovirus. Many types of enteroviruses have mild cold and flu-like symptoms, and some of these viruses have been known to cause viral meningitis. Viral meningitis can bring on a stiff neck, but this form of meningitis isn’t usually as harmful or potentially harmful to your health as others. If you have an unexplained stiff neck and some other symptoms, see your doctor. There are several types of meningitis, each ranging in severity from mild to potentially fatal, and you can endure severe complications if it goes unchecked and untreated.

2. Fever

The onset of a sudden and high fever will often occur with meningitis as the infection enters the body and the immune system responds by increasing the body temperature. This is particularly common with bacterial meningitis, which is the most dangerous (requires emergency medical attention) but is typically easily mistaken for other common flu-like illnesses. Symptoms like this typically develop quickly, within 3-7 days after being exposed to the virus.

Unfortunately, the American College of Emergency Physicians explains that while there are three common symptoms of meningitis – fever, headache, and stiff neck, only 44 to 66-percent of patients with the infection will show these three symptoms. In some cases, someone with bacterial meningitis might only have one or two of these symptoms. This can make it difficult to diagnose in emergency medical settings, yet it’s extremely important to identify and treat bacterial meningitis as early as possible to avoid severe, long-term complications and death.

3. Headache

Another sign of meningitis is a severe headache that lingers and won’t go away. Again, this is due to the inflammation and swelling of the membranes that surround the brain and spine. Headaches are considered one of the three most common symptoms of meningitis. Children, youth and adults are likely to get a headache from meningitis, but newborns and children under 2 don’t typically experience this symptom. Along with a severe headache, you may experience flu-like symptoms.

The type of headache you have is also important, as not all headaches are the same. If you have meningitis, the pain associated with your headache will feel different than other headaches you’ve experienced and dealing with headaches from meningitis is not confined to just one type of the infection as information available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists headaches as a symptom of bacterial, viral, fungal, parasitic, and non-infectious meningitis.

4. Confusion

Meningitis is an infection that can cause the brain to swell, causing extreme confusion, lack of focus, memory loss, dizziness, insomnia, lethargy, and difficulty waking up. Sudden confusion, along with some other symptoms of meningitis, should be investigated by a doctor as soon as possible. Severe cases of meningitis, especially bacterial meningitis, can worsen quickly and cause permanent damage.

Confusion can present itself in many different ways. You could have difficulty discerning between what’s real versus what’s a dream, your memories might not be clear, or you could completely forget major milestones such as having children or getting married. For some people with meningitis, this confusion can last quite some time and be very hard to deal with. It can lead to frustration and embarrassment and affect all areas of your life. You may not be able to do the things you usually do until your symptoms go away. A strong and patient support system can help relieve the emotional toll that confusion can have on your life.

5. Light Sensitivity

Meningitis can cause extreme light sensitivity (photophobia), in which squinting, eye pain, difficulty with vision in sunlight or under bright lights, and migraine-like headaches result. Many symptoms, including light sensitivity, can develop quickly usually within a couple hours after being exposed to the virus, bacteria or fungi, and sometimes 1 or 2 days later. Light sensitivity is also considered a common early sign of meningitis. So, if it comes on suddenly, you should look for other signs and symptoms and see your doctor before it worsens.

Your vision could become blurry from meningitis, because the optic nerve can swell. In most cases, the swelling will eventually go down and your vision will return with no lasting damage. However, in some severe cases of meningitis, partial or full blindness can occur in one or both eyes, with no chance of reversing the effect. Sometimes the optic nerve is damaged beyond repair, which is another reason why it’s important to get a diagnosis and treatment plan as soon as possible.

6. Nausea

Nausea and/or vomiting often occurs with meningitis in the early development stage. As the infection progresses, severe stomach upset, nausea, and vomiting will cause patients to lose their appetite and weight. Depending on the severity of the infection, extreme weight loss can occur from loss of appetite, vomiting, and nausea, causing other health issues. Your body won’t get the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients it needs when rapid weight loss occurs from not eating or being able to keep things down. Your immune system will also suffer.

Those who have weakened immune systems prior to meningitis are more susceptible to catching the infection, and the complications and symptoms can be much worse because their immune system isn’t strong enough to fight and heal. Overall, as unpleasant as nausea and vomiting are, the potential short and long-term health ramifications can be much worse. Getting the necessary treatment and trying to eat even when you don’t feel hungry is vital to help you heal.

7. Rash

Oftentimes meningococcal meningitis infection will cause skin rashes, particularly in babies and toddlers, who may also develop a bulge in the soft spot on the top of their heads. Rashes appear from the bacteria multiplying in the bloodstream, releasing poisons that begin to damage blood vessels, resulting in what looks like several little rashes on the body.

The Glass Test (or Tumbler Test) is what’s commonly referred to as the test you can do at home to check if the rash might be caused by meningitis. In this test, a clear drinking glass is pressed firmly against one or several of the rashes, paying attention to the rash marks. If the marks stay the same (i.e., you can see them clearly through the glass), you seek medical attention immediately. If the skin was just irritated and a rash developed, it would fade with the pressure of the glass. This test can also be used to test for septicemia (blood poisoning). It’s not uncommon for people to develop septicemia when they have meningitis, because the germs and bacteria that cause meningitis are the same ones that cause septicemia.

8. Irritability

The fever, discomfort, and stiffness associated with meningitis will make normal daily activities and even sleeping uncomfortable. Patients of all ages, especially small children, may be difficult to comfort and extremely irritable as a result. It’s difficult to cope with even the mildest of symptoms, and it can eventually take a toll on the patient’s emotional and mental health. While a lot of meningitis cases are treated and healed within 1 or 2 weeks, severe cases can go on for months, with symptoms preventing the patient from doing much else but staying in bed. And in extreme cases of meningitis, hospitalization for weeks and months at a time can occur.

Irritability can also come from confusion, another symptom of meningitis. Being unable to discern between reality and dreams, losing memories, and difficulty thinking clearly only add to the patient’s burden. In children, confusion is even more likely to lead to increased irritability, because it’s difficult for them to fully comprehend the illness.

9. Loss of Appetite

The nausea and stomach upset associated with meningitis can be mistaken for a flu that affects the digestive tract and causes loss of appetite and even discomfort drinking and eating. Unfortunately, meningitis is often not diagnosed early because of the similar symptoms brought on by several types of meningitis and their similarity to the common flu. But loss of appetite can lead to unsafe and unhealthy weight loss, as well as the lack of vital nutrients the body needs to be healthy.

It’s important to regularly attempt to eat when you have meningitis. Food provides sustenance and can help strengthen your immune system. It can be especially difficult to get children to eat and infants to feed. In severe cases of meningitis, hospitalization is required not only because of the infection but also the effect it can have on the rest of your body. Intravenous fluids administered at a hospital help patients stay hydrated, and medical staff are nearby to keep a close watch on symptoms that can lead to additional health problems.

10. Seizures

In extreme cases, meningitis can cause seizures with a very high fever if bacterial toxins enter the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord and causes pressure on the brain. Bacterial meningitis is more likely to cause seizures than viral meningitis, and it’s possible to experience seizures in just one area of the body. Some seizures can lead to disability or death, but there are treatments and environmental changes that can help prevent seizures from occurring. Since meningitis can cause your sodium level to drop (sometimes triggering seizures), intravenous fluids to maintain a healthy level of sodium in the body can be administered. Anticonvulsant medications and resting in a quiet room can also help prevent or lower the severity of the seizure.

The number of bacterial meningitis cases, the worst type of meningitis, is much lower in North America. While permanent after effects of meningitis are uncommon, there is a possibility for permanent and temporary health problems, including epilepsy and seizures. These fits can come and go at random times and significantly disrupt a person’s life.

11. Fatigue

We all experience fatigue every now and then or for some people, every morning. But there’s a difference between being a little tired in the morning and the extreme fatigue associated with meningitis. This kind of fatigue will be so severe that it will be difficult to wake the person from their slumber, and they’ll constantly feel drowsy throughout the day, no matter how much sleep they get at night. This can have a domino affect on other aspects of their life by affecting their job, social life, and ability to complete mundane, everyday tasks such as driving. According to Healthline, this symptom is present in bacterial meningitis and viral meningitis but not in fungal meningitis.

In addition to being drowsy, a person who is suffering from meningitis might also be acting sluggish or lethargic. Unfortunately, this symptom could indicate a slew of health conditions. So, just because you’re feeling extremely fatigued one day, doesn’t mean you’re suffering from meningitis. The best way to determine whether this symptom is due to this condition is to match it with other symptoms on this list. Also, be in tune with your body. You are the best person to know what feels normal and what doesn’t.

12. Cold Hands and Feet

Usually when a person is more prone to having cold hands or feet, we assume it’s something to do with their circulatory system. But if it occurs in tandem with several of the other symptoms on this list, it could be due to meningitis. Medical News Daily explains that this is one of the early symptoms of meningitis, and cold hands and feet will often accompany signs of a high fever.

13. More Serious Warning Signs

While meningitis is serious enough on its own, it becomes quite serious when it enters into the bloodstream. This can happen when the person is suffering from bacterial meningitis, which is the most serious form of meningitis, because if it’s left untreated, it can get into the blood stream and cause “paralysis, stroke, seizures, sepsis, and even death,” writes Healthline. If bacterial meningitis enters into the blood stream, WebMD says it will cause symptoms like “abnormal skin color, stomach cramps, ice-cold hands and feet, skin rash, muscle aches or joint pain, rapid breathing, and/or chills.”

14. Newborn Signs

The only thing scarier than the thought of having meningitis is thinking that your child is suffering from this condition, especially if that child is an infant. According to Very Well Health, newborns and infants won’t necessarily have the same signs as an adult, and obviously, in most cases, they’re unable to communicate what’s wrong. Thankfully, there are other ways to tell if your child is suffering from meningitis. According to Very Well Health, an infant “may experience fussiness, excessive tiredness, diminished eating and drinking, and vomiting. The soft spot on their skull (fotanel) may also bulge.”

While babies have separate symptoms from adults, they will showcase some similar ones. For example, NHS expands on this by stating that newborns can be irritable, unable to or not want to feed, sleepy, hard to wake up, unable to console, fever, jaundice, have an unusual high-pitched cry, and some stiffness in their body and neck.

Katherine George

Katherine George

Katherine is the Senior Managing Editor of ActiveBeat and Childhood. She is constantly striving to live a more active and healthy life, from eating healthy, exercising, and just spending more time outdoors. She enjoys cooking (with wine), walking her dog, reading, and recently joined a yoga studio!