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Meningitis

What Are The Symptoms Of Meningitis?

Last modified: 
19/04/2012 - 14:45

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

The symptoms of meningitis are similar for both bacterial and viral forms of the disease. Adults and older children typically experience:

  • Fever and chills
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Stiff neck (patient may not be able to curl up in bed with nose to knees)
  • Irritability and drowsiness
  • Eyes that are sensitive to light
  • Delirium and confusion (uncommon)
  • Seizures (rare)
  • Coma (rare)

Symptoms in infants and young children include:

  • Whimpering and crying in a high-pitched tone
  • Difficulty in waking and very lethargic when awake
  • Fussiness when being held or cuddled
  • Arching the back and retracting the neck
  • Staring blankly at their surroundings
  • Having a high fever and cold hands and feet
  • Refusing food
  • Vomiting
  • Appearing pale or blotchy

Meningococcal meningitis often causes a distinctive rashThis rash is the result of a form of septicemia (infection in the bloodstream), a potentially fatal condition.

Septicemia occurs when the meningococcus bacteria multiply uncontrollably in the bloodstream. The bacteria release toxins into the blood that break down the walls of the blood vessels, allowing blood to leak into the skin. The leaking causes a characteristic rash, called a hemorrhagic rash. The rash can appear anywhere on the body, including in the eyes and often between the toes.

The rash starts as a cluster of tiny blood spots, which look like pin pricks in the skin. If untreated, these spots gradually grow and become multiple areas of bleeding, resembling fresh bruises under the skin surface. The spots or bruises do not blanch (turn white) when pressed.

Need To Know

Q. I'm concerned about my baby. She has been crying and whimpering all day. She has a blank stare and is lethargic. She has a fever and is not eating. What should I do.

A. Your baby is showing the classic symptoms of meningitis. If your child experiences any of the symptoms of meningitis or septicemia ('blood poisoning'), see a doctor immediately or go to the emergency department . Meningitis, especially bacterial meningitis, can cause brain damage in just a few hours and can kill in 24 hours.

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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.