Signs of meningitis can be misleading at first. You can easily assume you have a case of the flu. Symptoms for viral or bacterial meningitis infections can also be fairly similar in their early stages, developing within a few hours to a few days. Due to the nature of a bacterial infection, this form of meningitis will present more severe symptoms. There is no way to determine a meningitis type purely on observing symptoms alone, so it is imperative that if you suspect an infection, you see a medical professional as soon as possible for appropriate testing.
Any symptoms experienced can depend on a person’s age too (infant, young child or adult).
General symptoms of viral meningitis
- Infants and young children: Fever, stiff neck and body (a baby may tend to arch their body) irritability, lethargy and excessive fatigue, constant crying, poor feeding and decreased appetite. A baby can also develop a bulge in the soft spot on the top of the head (fontanel). An ill baby will be incredibly difficult to comfort and may even seem more distressed when held.
- Adults: Fever, headache, stiff neck, lethargy and fatigue, nausea, decreased appetite, bright light sensitivity and seizures.
General symptoms of bacterial meningitis
- Nausea and vomiting
- Headache (this can be severe)
- Fever (this can be sudden)
- Irritability and moodiness
- Stiff neck
- Light sensitivity
- Fatigue and lethargy (this can also include difficulty waking)
- Altered mental status (confusion and inability to concentrate)
- Lack of appetite or thirst
- Skin rashes
How does a meningitis infection affect the body?
- The central nervous system: This consists of the nerves, spinal cord and brain. When a meningitis infection occurs, it causes inflammation in this system, which in turn directly affects every other part of your body. Symptoms that typically occur due to this swelling come on quickly and include headaches (an early warning sign of the condition). Effects thereafter also come on quickly and progress swiftly too. Inflammation brings with it cognitive problems (affecting memory and concentration) and even seizures, as well as interference with a person’s senses. This can include tinnitus (ringing in the ears), partial hearing loss and even deafness. Speech may also be affected, along with pain in the eyes, weakened vision and sensitivity to light. Symptoms of fever will result in stomach upsets, nausea and vomiting and loss of appetite. Fever also causes infants and young children to become challenging to comfort, irritable and fussy. A compromised nervous system causes dizziness and clumsiness, as well as impaired coordination. If not adequately treated children can experience learning difficulties, sleep disturbances and emotional problems such as clinginess and general moodiness. Untreated, meningitis infections can lead to coma too.
- Muscular and skeletal systems: Notable symptoms of meningitis are stiffness of the neck and back. In more serious instances, a person may become painfully rigid and even arched as a result. This is known as opisthotonos, and is commonly seen with babies and young children. When this occurs, a baby or young child may produce a very high-pitched scream when you try to hold or pick them up. Lingering effects can continue long after the condition has been treated in the form of joint stiffness and arthritis. Babies typically develop a bulging fontanel as a result of swelling / inflammation on the brain. This is to be regarded as a medical emergency and requires attention as soon as possible. While joints stiffen, muscles may weaken and add to symptoms of spasms, body aches and generalised weakness in some parts of the body.
- Circulatory system and the skin (Integumentary system): The infection affects the bloodstream quickly, especially one caused by a bacterium. Septicaemia, which results when toxins from a bacterial infection are released into the bloodstream, can be deadly, causing bleeding under the skin. Bleeding can look like a mild rash on the surface of the skin. At first this can appear a little flushed and blotchy. A rash can spread and darken (deep red or purple in colour), occurring anywhere on the body and begin to resemble large bruises. A rash can leave lingering effects in the form of scars. Blood pressure may decrease and circulation will slow down. This causes damage to the blood vessels in the body, and in turn causes trouble for the lungs and kidneys. Circulation in general becomes increasingly poor and in dire situations can lead to amputation of the arms, legs, fingers and toes.