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Understanding Meningitis -- Symptoms

While meningitis is rare, it's a serious and potentially life-threatening disease. So it's a good idea to know typical meningitis symptoms. The most common are: 

  • Stiff neck, sometimes so stiff that it's difficult to touch the chin to the chest
  • Headache, sometimes severe
  • High fever
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Discomfort from bright lights
  • Sleepiness
  • Seizures
  • Rash

Sometimes, these symptoms follow a flu-like illness, ear infection, or sinus infection.

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If your child is too young to talk, you may have a hard time detecting some of these symptoms. So in infants and young children, the only evident meningitis symptoms might be:

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty feeding
  • High-pitched cry
  • Pale or blotchy skin
  • Crying when held
  • Arching back

The speed with which meningitis symptoms develop varies. Bacterial meningitis symptoms come on quickly, usually over a period of hours. With viral meningitis, symptoms might develop over several days.

When to See a Doctor

Of course, what's disturbing about the above list of meningitis symptoms, especially for a parent, is that most are incredibly common. 

So here's one important thing to keep in mind. Beyond any of the specific meningitis symptoms, children or adults with bacterial meningitis -- the most serious type -- usually become very ill very quickly.

Even though the odds of getting meningitis are very small, you should still err on the side of caution. If you or a family member have been exposed to meningitis or have worrisome meningitis symptoms, give your health care provider a call. If the meningitis symptoms seem severe, go to the emergency room right away. Getting prompt treatment for meningitis can make all the difference.

 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Varnada Karriem-Norwood, MD on March 17, 2014

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