Symptoms of Meningitis

By  , Expert Content
May 23, 2012

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Meningitis is most commonly caused by viral or bacterial infection. Signs and symptoms of viral and bacterial meningitis are almost similar and can therefore, be difficult to differentiate. Bacterial meningitis is considered as a medical emergency because it can progress rapidly and lead to septicaemia (blood poisoning) or even death. Meningitis can affect a person of any age group, but the incidence is more common in young children (<4 years) and children in the late teenage years. In the initial stages of illness, the signs and symptoms of meningitis may be mistaken for flu (influenza), however, in meningitis, the signs and symptoms tend to progress more rapidly over several hours or over one or two days and are therefore, more severe.

Signs and symptoms of meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is more serious than viral meningitis. The symptoms usually begin suddenly and can progress rapidly causing more complications and leading to septicaemia (blood poisoning).

Early warning signs: Some early warning signs that may be present before overt symptoms of meningitis appear include:

  • pain in the muscles, joints or limbs such as in the legs or hands (it may be severe and can make the person feel sick and tired)
  • cold extremities (hands and feet) or shivering
  • pale or blotchy skin and blue discoloration of lips and
  • high fever.

If you have high temperature (fever) along with one or more of the above symptoms, do not ignore them, but consult your doctor immediately.

Early symptoms:  Early symptoms of meningitis are non-specific and similar symptoms are observed in many other conditions.

  • severe throbbing or splitting headache
  • high fever
  • nausea (feeling sick) and vomiting (may be recurrent) and
  • feeling generally unwell, tired and lethargic.

Later symptoms: As the infection progresses, the symptoms become more severe and there may be symptoms of neurological involvement.

  • drowsiness and confusion
  • seizures or fits
  • stiff neck (less common in young children)
  • sensitivity to light (being unable to tolerate bright lights that is photophobia)
  • fast breathing rate and
  • red rash on skin (which may or may not  fade or change colour when you place a glass against it).

Babies and young children

Signs and symptoms of bacterial meningitis in infants and young children can be different from adults and older children. Possible signs and symptoms that may occur include:

  • floppy and unresponsive child
  • seizures, stiff with jerky movements
  • highly irritable and not wanting to be held
  • unusual crying (not becoming comforted on being picked-up or held)
  • vomiting
  • refusal to feeds
  • pale or blotchy skin, cold extremities (hands and feet) or shivering
  • blank or staring expression
  • very sleepy or drowsy (with a reluctance to wake up) and
  • swelling in the soft part of their head (fontanelle).




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