What is meningitis?

Meningitis is a swelling of the membranes of the brain and spinal cord. It can be due to viral, fungal, or bacterial infection. The most common cause of meningitis is a viral infection. But bacterial meningitis is one of the most dangerous forms of the disease.

Symptoms generally occur within a week after exposure. Not everyone develops every symptom. But they may develop a distinctive skin rash or additional symptoms that include:

  • fever
  • feeling ill
  • headache

See your doctor if you think you or a loved one may have contracted meningitis. This infection can be life threatening.

Meningococcal bacteria reproduce in the bloodstream and release poisons (septicemia). As the infection progresses, blood vessels can become damaged.

This can cause a faint skin rash that looks like tiny pinpricks. The spots may be pink, red, or purple. In the early stages these symptoms may be dismissed as a scratch or mild bruising. The skin may simply look blotchy and can appear anywhere on the body.

As the infection spreads, the rash becomes more obvious. More bleeding under the skin may cause the spots to turn dark red or deep purple. The rash may resemble large bruises.

It’s harder to see the rash on darker skin. If you suspect meningitis, check lighter areas like the palms, eyelids, and inside the mouth.

Not everyone with meningitis develops a rash.

One sign of meningococcal septicemia is that the rash doesn’t fade when you apply pressure to the skin. You can test this by pressing the side of a clear drinking glass against the skin. If the rash looks like it fades, check periodically for changes. If you can still see the spots clearly through the glass, it may be a sign of septicemia, especially if you also have a fever.

The glass test is a good tool, but it’s not always accurate. This is a life-threatening illness so it’s important to get medical attention if you have any symptoms.

The rash spreads and continues to darken as the condition advances. Blood vessel damage causes blood pressure and circulation to fall. Because the limbs are at the far reaches of the circulatory system, a system-wide decrease in blood pressure leads to inadequate oxygen delivery, especially in the limbs. This can injure tissue and lead to permanent scarring. Plastic surgery and skin grafting may be able to improve function after the illness passes. In severe cases, it becomes necessary to amputate fingers, toes, arms, or legs. Rehabilitative services may be helpful in those cases, but recovery could take years.

Neck pain and stiffness are common symptoms of meningitis. It can sometimes cause the head, neck, and spine to become rigid and arch backwards (opisthotonos). This is more likely to happen to infants and young children. This symptom may be accompanied by sensitivity to light, which is a sign of serious infection. Get medical help immediately if you or your child displays these symptoms.

Early in the course of infection, infants’ skin sometimes develops a yellow, blue, or pale tone. Like adults, they may also develop blotchy skin or a pinprick rash.

As the infection progresses, the rash grows and darkens. Lesions or blood blisters may form. The infection can spread quickly.

Seek medical attention if your infant has fever with a rash.

Another sign of meningitis concerns the soft spot on top of a baby’s head (fontanel). A soft spot that feels tight or forms a bulge could be a sign of swelling in the brain. Always contact your doctor if you see bumps or bulges on your infant’s head. Meningitis can be a very serious illness even if your baby doesn’t develop septicemia.

Meningitis can happen at any age, but infants and children are at greater risk than adults. Viral meningitis is most likely to occur in the summer. Bacterial meningitis tends to happen more often in winter and early spring. Some types are contagious, particularly in close quarters like daycare centers and college dorms.

Vaccines can help prevent some, but not all, types of meningitis. Early diagnosis and treatment can help you avoid complications and potential long-term effects.