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Symptoms of Meningitis

Meningitis is an infection of the protective cover around the brain (meninges). Meningitis causes symptoms such as fever, a stiff neck, and headaches with sensitivity to sounds and lightMeningitis can also cause confusion or seizures if it becomes severe.

Meningitis can be caused by different germs. Two of the main types of meningitis are bacterial and viral. Meningitis infections often have some of the same symptoms but they can also have some important differences.

This article will go over the signs and symptoms of meningitis. You will also learn how to spot the complications of the infection.

Frequent Symptoms

The most common symptoms of meningitis are fever, a stiff neck, and trouble thinking (called a change in mental status). The three symptoms together are called the "classic triad" of meningitis symptoms.

There are also other symptoms of meningitis. Many of them are also common in other kinds of infections. Some meningitis symptoms start early on in the infection while others take longer to show up. You may not have all of these symptoms if you have meningitis.

Common meningitis symptoms include:

  • Low-grade fever: A person with meningitis usually has a fever, which can be low or high.
  • Headaches: Headaches from meningitis can be very painful. Sometimes, they only cause mild to moderate pain all over the head. A person might also have sensitivity to sound and light with the headache.
  • Stiff neck: Upper neck pain and stiffness when you move your neck are usually present if you have meningitis. The discomfort usually will not go away if you change the position of your neck.
  • Muscle aches: Soreness and tenderness all over your body are other common symptoms of meningitis, but they can also happen with infections like the flu.
  • Fatigue: Feeling worn out and exhausted, even if you are not being active, is typical in people who have infections including meningitis.
  • Sleepiness: You are likely to feel sleepy if you have meningitis. You might sleep for hours longer than you normally would.
  • Lack of appetite: As with other illnesses, people with meningitis often do not feel hungry or want to eat.
  • Nausea and vomiting: You may experience nausea or vomiting even if you have a mild case of meningitis. 
  • Irritability: The other symptoms of meningitis can be very discomforting and can contribute to a person feeling generally irritable.
  • Back pain: Back pain caused by meningitis usually gets worse when you bend your legs close to your chest in a fetal position. However, it can also be made worse by any change in position. You might have this pain all the time.

How Long Do Symptoms Last?

If you have viral meningitis, your symptoms will likely get better in a week to 10 days. If you have bacterial meningitis, the infection lasts longer and is more severe.

Young Infants

In newborns and small infants, the symptoms of meningitis may come on quickly—often within a matter of hours.1 

It's important to know that the classic triad of meningitis symptoms—fever, headache, and neck stiffness—can be absent or hard to spot in very young babies. 

Symptoms of meningitis in infants can include:

  • Fussiness
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Less eating and drinking
  • Vomiting
  • A bulging soft spot on a baby's skull where the bones have not closed yet (fontanel) because there is increased pressure inside the head from the infection.


Meningitis usually causes fever, a stiff neck, and a headache. People may have trouble thinking clearly and feel very tired.

Babies and young children with meningitis may not have these "classic" symptoms. However, they usually have other symptoms like fussiness and vomiting.

Less Common Symptoms

Other than the general flu-like symptoms that start early in a meningitis infection, there are also some other symptoms that can crop up.

While they are less common, these symptoms are usually more noticeable. Many of these symptoms are also more likely to happen in bacterial, rather than viral, meningitis.1

Less common symptoms of meningitis include:

  • Rash: Bacterial infections that lead to meningitis can cause a rash. This is very common with meningococcal meningitis. This infection causes a rash of tiny, flat, red dots on the skin. The red dots are actually caused by bleeding of tiny blood vessels (capillaries), which happens as the infection spreads outside the nervous system. 
  • Confusion: Meningitis causes the space around the brain to become inflamed. A person with the infection may have brain-related (neurological) symptoms such as confusion that comes and goes and difficulty concentrating or paying attention. 
  • Delirium: When meningitis is severe, or if the infection spreads to the brain, a person can get suddenly, obviously confused. This is referred to as delirium. The confusion may get to the point where they cannot understand what is going on around them at all. Some people also experience behavioral changes.
  • Coma: Rarely, a person with meningitis loses consciousness and stays in an unconscious state until they get high-level medical care to fight the infection. For example, being admitted to the hospital for treatment.


Certain types of meningitis can have other less common symptoms, like rashes and confusion. In rare cases, a person with meningitis falls into a coma.


There are many complications of meningitis. However, they are more common in bacterial meningitis than in viral meningitis.

These complications happen when the infection reaches nerves, spreads to the brain, or gets into other areas of the body.

Very young babies and people who do not have a healthy immune system are more likely to have complications from meningitis but any person can get them—even if they are otherwise healthy.2

One of the most important parts of treating meningitis is preventing complications. The earlier they are spotted, the more likely it is that they can be controlled. If you have these symptoms, you need to seek medical care right away:

  • Hearing loss: Meningitis can affect the nerves that control hearing. Some people get permanent hearing impairment after they have meningitis. It is very uncommon for a person's hearing to be affected early in the infection, but it can happen. It more often happens as a complication of the infection rather than a symptom.
  • Encephalitis: The infection and inflammation caused by meningitis can spread to the brain. If this happens, a condition called encephalitis occurs. Encephalitis is the infection of the brain itself. It causes a range of symptoms and effects that can be long-lasting. A few examples of the long-term changes that a person can have from encephalitis include fatigue, trouble sleeping, a decline in thinking ability (cognitive function), and vision changes. 
  • Seizures: When the tissue of the brain gets irritated from a meningitis infection, it can cause the electrical activity to stop working right. This can cause a person to have seizures.
  • Septicemia: When an infection gets into the blood, it's called septicemia. The condition can cause the body to not get enough blood and oxygen (rapid circulatory collapse). When this happens, organs may start to fail. Meningococcal meningitis often causes septicemia and people can die from it.3
  • Stroke: The inflammation in the body during a meningitis infection can lead to blood clots. If one of the clots gets to the brain, it can cause a stroke.
  • Death: The signs and symptoms of meningitis can happen slowly over time, but they can also start suddenly and move very fast. One way that the infection can develop is that swelling in and around the brain starts to push the lower part of the brain (brain stem) through the opening to the spinal canal. This condition is called brain herniation. It can cause a person to stop breathing (respiratory arrest). If they do not get medical care quickly, they will die.


The possible complications of meningitis, like hearing loss, can last a long time. Complications like a blood infection or stroke can be life-threatening.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Meningitis needs to be treated. Your healthcare provider's main goal will be to prevent you from getting complications from the infection.

Even if you do not feel "that sick," you need to get medical care if you have symptoms of meningitis such as:

  • Headaches: If you start having new headaches or a different type of headache than you usually get, it can be a sign of meningitis.
  • Fevers: High fevers that don't get better or are accompanied by other symptoms of meningitis could mean that you have the infection or a complication of it.
  • Stiff neck: Having a stiff neck is one of the tell-tale signs of meningitis. It's also a symptom that is very unusual in a child and can be an important clue that the child has the infection.
  • Seizures: If you experience movements of your body that you can't control (involuntary), convulsions, "spacing out," or episodes in which you don't know what's happening around you, you could be having a seizure. You need to seek medical care if you think you've had a seizure, even if you feel better when it's over.
  • Rash with fever: A rash with a fever, headache, and stiff neck is the hallmark of meningococcal meningitis. This bacterial infection can become serious very quickly and requires immediate medical attention.
  • Confusion: If you start feeling confused, have trouble concentrating, or cannot pay attention, it's important to seek medical care right away. These symptoms can be from meningitis or another serious problem involving your brain.
  • Losing consciousness: If you or a loved one "passes out," call 911. There are many reasons that a person may lose consciousness. Sometimes, a person faints and it is not serious. However, it can also be a sign that something is very wrong.


Meningitis is an infection of the layer around the brain. The infection causes inflammation.

Meningitis can be caused by bacteria or viruses. Bacterial and viral meningitis have some of the same symptoms, but they are also different.

The symptoms of meningitis may come on gradually or very fast. Sometimes, the infection gets worse quickly and a person becomes seriously ill. The complications from the infection can be life-threatening.

A Word From Verywell

If you have signs or symptoms of meningitis, it's important not to wait to get medical attention. Not only can getting medical care quickly help you feel better, it can also prevent complications from the infection.

The complications from meningitis can be life-threatening. Even if you recover, you might have long-lasting effects from the illness. The best way to prevent these things from happening is knowing how to spot symptoms of meningitis and getting medical care as soon as possible.

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