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Meningitis: Signs and Symptoms of Infection

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  • Meningococcal Meningitis: An Overview

    Meningococcal Meningitis: An Overview

    Meningococcal meningitis (meningitis) is a serious bacterial infection of the protective lining of the brain and the spinal cord (called “meninges”). It’s usually spread via saliva or mucus.  A few ways it is spread include kissing, close living conditions, or sharing cups and eating utensils. Outbreaks of meningitis most often occur in places where many people live in close quarters, like college dorms and boarding schools.

  • Classic Symptoms

    Classic Symptoms

    The most common and recognizable symptoms of meningitis include:

    • high fever and chills
    • headache
    • stiff neck
    • purple areas on the skin that look like bruises

    These symptoms usually come on suddenly, within one week of being exposed to the bacteria.

  • Other Symptoms

    Other Symptoms

    Other less common symptoms of meningitis are:

    • confusion, particularly in the elderly
    • nausea and vomiting
    • sensitivity to light
    • rash (usually a sign of later stages)
    • drowsiness and fatigue
    • seizure
    • coma
  • Symptoms in Young Children

    Symptoms in Young Children

    Young children tend to display different meningitis symptoms than do adults. The symptom of stiff neck associated with meningitis in adults is often not present in children. Symptoms in children are also likely to progress gradually, rather than coming on suddenly. Some symptoms common to young children include:

    • irritability
    • partial seizures
    • red or purple rash-like areas on the skin
    • projectile vomiting
    • difficulty with feeding
    • high-pitched crying
  • Possible Complications

    Possible Complications

    Serious complications can occur if meningitis goes untreated or if treatment is delayed. These may include:

    • seizures
    • brain damage
    • loss of hearing
    • hydrocephalus (fluid buildup and brain swelling)
    • myocarditis (inflammation of the heart, which can happen if the infection reaches the heart)
    • kidney failure
    • death
  • Prevention

    Prevention

    There is a vaccine to protect the people most at risk for contracting meningitis. You should consider a vaccine if you fall into one of these categories:

    • new college student moving into a dorm
    • new boarding school student
    • new military recruit
    • frequent traveler (certain parts of the world, particularly in Africa)

    Antibiotics can be given to all those potentially affected in the event of an outbreak—for example, everyone living in an affected dorm. In this way, treatment can begin even before people develop symptoms.

  • Diagnosis

    Diagnosis

    A diagnosis of meningitis can be based partly on a clinical exam, but is likely to include a spinal tap. Often, the bacteria can be seen under a microscope in the spinal fluid. Other signs of meningitis include protein levels that are higher than normal, and glucose levels that are lower than normal. A diagnosis can be confirmed through a culture of the spinal fluid, in which a lab technician looks at whether the spinal fluid grows the bacteria.

  • Treatment

    Treatment

    An antibiotic medication is the primary treatment for meningitis. The first choice is either ceftriaxone or cefotaxime. Penicillin or ampicillin may be used as alternatives. Patients are usually admitted into a hospital for treatment and observation. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to treat complications from meningitis.

  • When to Call the Doctor

    When to Call the Doctor

    It is very important to go to the doctor immediately if you suspect you have meningitis. This illness is a potentially fatal medical emergency. Call your doctor if you have been in close contact with someone who you know has meningitis. It is important to do this even if you display no symptoms. You should definitely seek treatment if you display meningitis symptoms, even if you’ve been vaccinated. The vaccine does not prevent all cases or types of meningococcal meningitis.

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