Meningitis: 10 Common Symptoms of This Dangerous Disease

5 minute read

By Selena Singh

Meningitis is an infection that affects the meninges. It can be caused by bacterial, viral, or (in rare cases) fungal infections. Fortunately, you can learn everything you need to know about meningitis symptoms with a search online.

Viral meningitis is the most common form. Bacterial meningitis is contagious and can be fatal if not treated immediately. In the United States, it is most commonly caused by the bacteria Neissera meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae.

The Basics

Anyone can get meningitis, but those at higher risk are very young children, adolescents, the elderly and individuals with a compromised immune system. You can protect yourself against meningitis by getting vaccinated and practicing good hygiene.

It’s also important to recognize the symptoms of meningitis so that you can get treated right away. Here are the common symptoms of this dangerous disease.

10. Sudden high fever with cold hands and feet

When the body is infected, the immune system defends it by increasing body temperature to ward off bacteria and viruses, which typically thrive at temperatures of 98.6°F. Within 3-7 days of being exposed to the infection, your body develops a high fever, which is typically defined as being 100.4°F or higher.

The body also prioritizes by protecting the internal organs from damage from the infection first. So, the flow of blood to the extremities, such as hands and feet, slows down.  Although the rest of your body may be burning up, if it is accompanied by cold hands and feet, then this is a red flag for meningitis.

9. Stiff neck

Since meningitis causes inflammation of the meninges, this is accompanied by swelling. It’s this swelling that results in the stiffness and discomfort that one may feel in the back of the neck. It may be painful to look down (which requires stretching the back of the neck) when the lining of the spinal cord is swollen.

Viral meningitis most often brings on a stiff neck. So, if you are experiencing a fever along with an unexplained stiff neck, it’s best to seek professional help.

8. Severe headaches

Headaches are one of the top three most common symptoms of meningitis and may be the first symptom to present itself. All forms of the infection—bacterial, viral, fungal—may cause headaches.

However, the headaches that are caused by meningitis are not your typical headache. Rather, they are extremely painful and won’t go away despite taking painkillers. This is because they are due to the inflammation of the brain’s lining. If you notice that you have a persistent headache, especially one that is accompanied by other symptoms, please seek help immediately.

7. Seizures

In severe cases, meningitis can cause seizures if the bacterial toxins enter the fluid surrounding the brain and cause pressure on the brain. It’s possible to experience seizures in just one area of the body. Seizures are more likely to occur with bacterial than viral meningitis and can be fatal. In fact, pneumococcal meningitis has a 5-fold increase in risk of seizure activity.

Seizures can occur at any time during the course of the disease but those occurring early on are more controllable. If a seizure is prolonged or difficult to control, it can lead to permanent neurological deficits. However, there are treatments and environmental changes that can prevent seizures from occurring or lessen its severity. For example, anticonvulsant medications or IV fluids may be used (since it’s a drop in sodium levels that triggers the seizures).

6. Sensitivity to light

Light sensitivity, or photophobia, typically develops within hours of being exposed to a virus, bacteria or fungi. Eye pain, squinting eyes and difficulty with vision under bright lights or in the sunlight are all hallmarks of this symptom. It may even cause migraines. If an infant is irritable and won’t open their eyes to focus on you, this can be a sign of infection.

Meningitis can also cause swelling of the optic nerve, which could cause blurry vision. If the meningitis is treated promptly, the swelling will go down with no lasting effect on your vision. However, if a significant amount of time passes before you get treatment, the optic nerve can be damaged beyond repair. This highlights the importance of seeking help as soon as you sense that something isn’t right.

5. Skin rash

Meningitis often causes rashes on the skin, particularly in toddlers. The rash usually appears about 13 hours after the onset of the illness. This is caused by the bacteria multiplying in the body and releasing toxins that damage the blood vessels, resulting in red rashes. Babies and toddlers may also develop a bulge on the soft spot of their heads.

There’s a test you could try at home to see if the rash is caused by meningitis called the Glass Test. If you press a clear drinking glass against one of the rashes and the rash stays the same instead of fading, this is a warning sign for meningitis.

4. Nausea

Nausea or vomiting can occur as a side effect of the severe headache caused by meningitis. Thus, they occur in the early stages of infection, as do headaches.

Depending on the severity of the infection, weight loss may occur from the loss of appetite and vomiting. This can cause even more problems to arise, as the body won’t get the vitamins and minerals it needs. This can also cause the immune system to weaken, making it less effective at combating the infection as well as others. To help avoid this, seek treatment as soon as possible and try to eat even when you aren’t feeling hungry.

3. Confusion

Due to the swelling of the brain’s lining when infected with meningitis, your thoughts may become fuzzy. People with meningitis may experience memory loss, have difficulty distinguishing dreams from reality or have trouble focusing. This can be both frustrating and embarrassing.

Severe cases of meningitis, especially bacterial meningitis, can cause permanent brain damage if left untreated for a long period of time. Seeking professional help as soon as you begin to experience these symptoms can save your brain and your life.

2. Severe muscle pain

Of course, since the spinal cord is swollen, it’s not surprising that back and neck pains are common symptoms of meningitis. However, it may come as a surprise that leg pain is also a symptom. The exact mechanism behind this is not entirely clear, but doctors believe it may be a response to the chemicals that the body releases during inflammation. Specifically, the body releases cytokines, which can cause muscle contractions, resulting in leg pain. Muscle weakness is also a common symptom during meningitis and even in the months afterward.

1. Drowsiness

Since the lining of your brain is swollen if you have meningitis, this can affect your cognition and state of mind, making you feel drowsy. In fact, people with meningitis may sleep excessively. It may even be difficult to wake them up.  If left untreated, meningitis can lead to a coma.

Additionally, since your body is infected with a pathogen, your immune system is working harder than usual to help you feel better. This can definitely be exhausting.  When you have meningitis, the fever and muscle stiffness can make you irritable. Being irritable can interfere with sleep and can also contribute to the feeling of drowsiness.

Selena Singh