Meningitis can be caused by many things, including viruses. Flu, a common viral illness, has some symptom overlap with meningitis. However, there are also important differences between these two illnesses.

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Meningitis is when inflammation impacts the tissue that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. In some cases, it can be very severe or life threatening. There were an estimated 2.8 million cases of meningitis globally in 2016.

Meningitis can have infectious or non-infectious causes. Examples of infectious causes include viruses, bacteria, and parasites.

Flu is an illness that’s caused by a virus. As such, you may be wondering how to tell meningitis from the flu.

While both illnesses have some symptom overlap, there are many differences to be aware of as well. Keep reading to learn more.

Meningitis is when the tissue that surrounds your brain, called the meninges, becomes inflamed. It can have both infectious and non-infectious causes.

The infectious causes of meningitis can include:

Examples of potential non-infectious causes of meningitis include autoimmune conditions, cancers, and drug reactions.

Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis overall. However, while less prevalent, bacterial meningitis is the most common cause of serious meningitis, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

When to seek emergency care

The different types of meningitis can cause similar symptoms. However, some types of meningitis, such as bacterial meningitis, can be very dangerous and even life threatening.

Therefore, it’s vital to seek emergency care if you or someone else has symptoms of meningitis. It’s also important to note that meningitis symptoms in newborns and babies can be different from those in adults and children, as we’ll discuss below.

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Meningitis and the flu do have symptoms that overlap, such as fever and headache. Additionally, the symptoms of meningitis can often be described as flu-like in the beginning before developing over a period of 1 to 2 days.

Both meningitis and the flu have symptoms that are different. For example, meningitis can cause symptoms that aren’t seen in flu, such as a stiff neck and sensitivity to light.

Similarly, common flu symptoms like runny or stuffy nose, cough, and sore throat aren’t present in meningitis.

Flu is also exclusively caused by influenza viruses. Influenza A and B viruses cause seasonal epidemics of flu each year.

As mentioned earlier, meningitis can be caused by many different things, including viruses, bacteria, parasites, and even non-infectious causes. The flu is actually a potential cause of viral meningitis, but this is rare overall.

The symptoms of both meningitis and the flu can come on suddenly. Let’s break down the symptoms of each now.


The general signs and symptoms of meningitis can include:

Symptoms in newborns and babies include:


The potential symptoms of the flu are:

HeadacheYes, severeYes
Nausea or vomitingYesSometimes
Muscle aches and painsNoYes
Runny or stuffy noseNoYes
Sore throatNoYes
Stiff neckYesNo
Sensitivity to lightYesNo

The treatment for meningitis depends on what’s causing it.

There’s no specific treatment for viral meningitis. A doctor will make sure that you’re getting enough fluids and can use medication to manage pain. Antiviral drugs can help with viral meningitis caused by herpes viruses or by flu.

Antibiotics and antifungal drugs are used to treat bacterial and fungal meningitis, respectively. Individuals with bacterial meningitis may also receive steroid medications as a part of their treatment. Steroids help to ease inflammation.

The flu can also be treated with antiviral drugs. One that you may be familiar with is oseltamivir (Tamiflu), although there are several others. Home care is also important, such as:

  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • getting rest
  • using over-the-counter medications to ease symptoms like fever, aches and pains, and nasal congestion

Anyone can get meningitis. However, there are several factors that can put you at a higher risk.

One of these is age. Newborns and young children are at risk of many types of meningitis, while adolescents are at a higher risk of meningococcal disease. Older adults are at a higher risk of pneumococcal disease.

Other risk factors for meningitis include:

  • having a weakened immune system, such as if you:
    • have had an organ transplant
  • living in crowded or group living conditions, such as in college or military settings
  • traveling to an area where certain types of infectious meningitis are common

Risk factors for the flu

Anyone can get the flu. A 2017 study found that children (people under 18 years old) were most likely to get sick with the flu. Older adults were the least likely to get sick.

Additionally, some people are more likely to get seriously ill from the flu. This includes:

The outlook for meningitis depends on what’s causing it. People who have viral meningitis with no complications typically recover in 7 to 10 days.

Many people who have bacterial meningitis do recover as well. However, the WHO notes that one in five people can have lasting health issues such as:

Most people with the flu can recover with home care, with or without antiviral drugs. People at a higher risk of serious illness may experience complications, such as:

Is meningitis the same as encephalitis?

No. Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain tissue itself. However, there are similarities. For example, meningitis and encephalitis can cause similar symptoms. They can both also have infectious or non-infectious causes.

How can you prevent meningitis and the flu?

Getting the seasonal flu vaccine each year can help reduce your risk of contracting the flu virus. Additionally, there are vaccines that can help prevent certain types of bacterial meningitis, such as:

Other ways that you can prevent both the flu and the most common types of meningitis include:

  • washing your hands frequently
  • avoiding close contact with people who are sick
  • not sharing personal items (such as toothbrushes), drinking glasses, or eating utensils with others
  • regularly disinfecting high-touch surfaces in your home, such as doorknobs and light switches

While meningitis and the flu have some similar symptoms, they have many different ones as well. Flu is caused by a virus, while meningitis can be caused by many things.

The different causes of meningitis have similar symptoms, but some causes of meningitis, especially bacterial meningitis, can be life threatening. Seek emergency care if you or someone else has symptoms of meningitis.