Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) surrounding your brain and spinal cord.

The swelling associated with meningitis often triggers the "hallmark" signs and symptoms of this condition, including headache, fever and a stiff neck.

Most cases of meningitis in the U.S. are caused by a viral infection, but bacterial and fungal infections also can lead to meningitis. Depending on the cause of the infection, meningitis can get better on its own in a couple of weeks — or it can be a life-threatening emergency requiring urgent antibiotic treatment.

If you suspect that you or someone in your family has meningitis, seek medical care right away. Early treatment of bacterial meningitis can prevent serious complications.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

It's easy to mistake the early signs and symptoms of meningitis for the flu (influenza). Meningitis signs and symptoms may develop over several hours or over one or two days.

The signs and symptoms that may occur in anyone older than age of 2 include:

  • Sudden high fever
  • Severe headache that isn't easily confused with other types of headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Vomiting or nausea with headache
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Seizures
  • Sleepiness or difficulty waking up
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Lack of interest in drinking and eating
  • Skin rash in some cases, such as in meningococcal meningitis

Signs in newborns

Newborns and infants may not have the classic signs and symptoms of headache and stiff neck. Instead, signs of meningitis in this age group may include:

  • High fever
  • Constant crying
  • Excessive sleepiness or irritability
  • Inactivity or sluggishness
  • Poor feeding
  • A bulge in the soft spot on top of a baby's head (fontanel)
  • Stiffness in a baby's body and neck

Infants with meningitis may be difficult to comfort, and may even cry harder when picked up.

When to see a doctor

Seek medical care right away if you or someone in your family has signs or symptoms of meningitis, such as:

  • Fever
  • Severe, unrelenting headache
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Stiff neck

Viral meningitis may improve without treatment, but bacterial meningitis is serious, can come on very quickly and requires prompt antibiotic treatment to improve the chances of a recovery. Delaying treatment for bacterial meningitis increases the risk of permanent brain damage or death. In addition, bacterial meningitis can prove fatal in a matter of days.

There's no way to know what kind of meningitis you or your child has without seeing your doctor and undergoing spinal fluid testing.

It's also important to talk to your doctor if a family member or someone you work with has meningitis. You may need to take medications to prevent an infection.

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