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Symptoms of Meningitis

Medically Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on February 26, 2021

Meningitis is a rare but serious disease, so it's important to learn the symptoms.

Be on the lookout for these signs in you or your family:

  • Stiff neck that sometimes makes it hard to touch your chin to your chest
  • Headache, which can be severe
  • High fever
  • Confusion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Discomfort from bright lights
  • Sleepiness
  • Seizures
  • Rash

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

If your child is too young to talk, you may have a hard time noticing these symptoms. So in babies and young children, watch for things like:

  • Fever
  • Acts sluggish
  • Irritable
  • Difficulty feeding
  • High-pitched cry
  • Red or purple spots on the skin
  • Cries when held
  • Arches back

How fast meningitis symptoms develop can vary. Bacterial meningitis symptoms come on quickly, usually over a period of hours. With viral meningitis, symptoms might appear over several days.

When to See a Doctor

Children or adults with bacterial meningitis -- the most serious type -- usually become very ill quickly.

Even though the odds of getting meningitis are small, you should still play it safe. If you or a family member have had contact with someone who has meningitis -- or you notice any symptoms of the disease -- give your doctor a call immediately. If the symptoms are severe, go to the emergency room right away. Prompt treatment for meningitis can make all the difference.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "Meningococcal Disease," "Use of Meningitis Vaccine in People with Cochlear Implants."

eMedicine: "Meningitis."

The Journal of the American Medical Association: "Meningitis." 

Meningitis Foundation of America: "Symptoms," "FAQ."

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