Meningitis causes swelling in the central nervous system, affecting the entire body and potentially causing long-term effects.
18 Effects of Meningitis on the Body
Meningitis is swelling of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. There are different types of meningitis, but most are caused by viruses or bacteria. Viral meningitis can make you very sick, but it often doesn’t leave lingering effects. Bacterial meningitis is more serious. It progresses rapidly and can cause permanent damage or even become life-threatening.
Quick diagnosis and treatment can help prevent some of the potential long-term side effects. If you have symptoms of meningitis, see your doctor without delay. Anyone can get meningitis, but it’s more common in babies, children, and adolescents.
Central Nervous System
The central nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Meningitis is an infection that causes the protective membranes of the nervous system to swell. Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord can affect every part of your body. Fever and other symptoms can come on suddenly and progress very quickly, causing devastating effects.
Headache can be an early warning sign of meningitis. Residual headaches may be a problem for some time. Inflammation of the brain can cause a wide range of problems, including cognitive issues and seizures. Trouble with memory and concentration may last well after the illness has passed. Children may be left with lingering learning difficulties.
Swelling in the brain can also interfere with the senses. It can cause ringing in the ears (tinnitus), partial hearing loss, or deafness. It may cause speech problems. Light sensitivity, eye pain, and loss of vision are possible.
Inflammation and fever can cause loss of appetite. Sick stomach, nausea, and vomiting are common. Infants and young children may become fussy, irritable, and difficult to comfort. And excessive sleepiness is a symptom of meningitis, so it may be hard to wake a sleeping child. Untreated, meningitis can lead to coma.
Poor coordination, dizziness, and clumsiness may remain for some time after a bout with meningitis. Children may have emotional problems following the illness, including clinginess, moodiness, and sleep disturbances.
Diagnostic testing may include brain imaging and spinal fluid analysis (spinal tap).
As bacteria multiply in your bloodstream, they may release toxins (septicemia). Septicemia is a life- threatening condition. Bleeding under the skin starts off looking like a mild rash. As blood pressure falls and circulation slows, blood vessels become damaged.
The rash spreads and darkens to a deep red or dark purple. The lungs and kidneys may deteriorate, and poor circulation puts the fingers, toes, arms, and legs at risk of amputation.
Diagnostic testing may include analyzing the blood for evidence of bacteria. If hospitalized, intravenous fluids, steroids, or antibiotics may be given as part of your treatment.
Skin (Integumentary System)
With the onset of fever, the skin may look flushed. If septicemia sets in and blood vessels become damaged, you’ll see evidence on the skin. At first, your skin may just look a little blotchy. You might mistake symptoms of septicemia for tiny scratches or a minor rash. The rash can appear anywhere on the body.
As the infection worsens, the rash spreads and gets darker, eventually resembling large bruises. In some cases, the rash can cause permanent scarring.
The “glass test” can be used to test for meningitis. If you press a drinking glass against a rash, it should fade. If it’s meningitis, you’ll still be able to view the rash clearly through the glass. Keep in mind that the glass test isn’t 100 percent accurate. It’s best to check with your doctor.
Skeletal and Muscular Systems
Stiff neck and back are common in meningitis. It may become difficult to turn your neck at all. In severe cases, the head, neck, and spine become painfully rigid and arched (opisthotonos). Babies and young children are more likely to experience opisthotonos than older people. A baby with meningitis may produce a high-pitched scream when you try to pick them up. Joint stiffness may continue long after the illness clears up, and arthritis can also be an after effect.
For infants, a tight or bulging fontanel (the soft spot on top of a baby’s head) is a sign of inflammation of the brain. If your infant shows this symptom, seek medical attention immediately.
Muscle weakness is a common symptom of meningitis, both during the illness and in the months that follow. Muscle spasms, body aches, or generalized weakness in some parts of the body may occur.