Often mistaken for the flu or just some other virus, many people ignore symptoms of what could be a deadly disease, meningitis. Knowing when to see a healthcare provider and when to ride it out could mean the difference between life and death. Experiencing the worst headache of your life along with flu-like symptoms, you could have meningitis and should get help immediately.
Recognizing meningitis symptoms saves lives
Sometimes meningitis resolves without treatment (viral) in days to weeks. In contrast, other forms of meningitis (bacterial causes in particular) can be lethal in just a few days. Therefore, you must understand what symptoms you should know to act fast.
Meningitis means what?
When the areas protecting the spinal cord and brain become inflamed, we refer to it as meningitis. (-itis means inflammation), so inflammation of the lining around the brain and cord.
Your brain and spinal cord are pivotal to your survival, resting in protective fluid and membranes to remain safe. Those membranes, or meninges, can become inflamed, even infected by various causes. Meningitis infections arise due to viral (less deadly), bacterial (often lethal), parasitic or fungal sources. Meningitis may also occur secondary to noninfectious conditions such as cancers, some medications, and even a head injury.
Symptoms of meningitis
Symptoms of meningitis vary depending on the underlying cause. People with less severe infections (such as viral meningitis) may demonstrate:
- Headache (varying severity)
- Light sensitivity (photophobia) – Lamps, lights, and even sunlight may bother your eyes
- Low-grade fever
- GI Upset
However, seek emergency care if you develop a sudden onset of symptoms, including those above, combined with the worst possible headache you could ever imagine, times ten.
You may experience additional signs of concern, suggesting a more serious type of meningitis (often bacterial), including:
- Changes in thinking ability (mental status changes)
- GI upset such as vomiting or nausea
- A stiff neck (sometimes to the point where you may not be able to move your neck much at all)
- Loss of balance
- Small purplish spots (rash-like areas known as petechiae)
Additional signs may also develop. Sometimes patients describe restlessness or agitation, decreased focus, increased breathing rates, and even an abnormal, arched head and neck posture (opisthotonos). Children may have reduced appetites or increased irritability, and babies may have swelling of the fontanelles (soft spots). Anyone may experience low energy or trouble staying awake, while infants may fail to wake for normal feeding times.
More severe signs require urgent attention. Do not delay evaluation by your healthcare provider or nearest emergency room.
However, even if your symptoms are mild, better safe than sorry. Seek medical care if you are worried about meningitis. Don’t simply presume you have a viral disease that may go away on its own. Don’t wait! Seek medical care ASAP. Failing to seek help for some forms of meningitis can lead to a rapid, painful death.
Could you be having a stroke?
Common meningitis symptoms also occur in patients suffering from a stroke. Additionally, failing to recognize early signs of meningitis could predispose someone to a stroke. It can be difficult to differentiate the symptoms of a stroke vs. meningitis because they have several commonalities.
If you find someone displaying symptoms such as a horrific headache in combination with trouble walking, lack of coordination, slurred speech, confusion, dizziness, or sudden numbness or inability to use a part of the face, arm, even leg, usually on the same side of the body, they need emergency care. They could have a classic stroke or show stroke-like symptoms secondary to meningitis. Urgent care is required!
Regardless of the cause of meningitis, or the care you receive, you could have complications even if you survive. So prevention or at least early recognition and treatment saves lives. Possible meningitis complications include:
- Hearing or vision loss
- Brain damage may lead to memory loss, behavior changes, or difficulties with regular everyday function (cognitive problems)
- Fluid build-up. Inside the skull itself (hydrocephalus) or between the brain and skull (subdural)
- Learning and physical disabilities may develop in children who develop meningitis
- Speech problems
- Some types of meningitis can cause kidney failure and damaged adrenal glands (which produce steroids and other hormones for the body)
- Poor muscle control
- Nerve damage
When to Seek Emergency Care
If you are suffering any combination of the symptoms mentioned above and are at all concerned, seek the opinion of a medical professional. However, seek emergency aid if you have a fever, a horrific headache, a stiff neck, vomiting, and or disorientation.
When in doubt, seek help out
Meningitis isn’t something to joke about. People experiencing a horrific headache like nothing they have ever felt or a stiff neck with decreased range of motion in combination with numerous other signs may suffer from meningitis. A plethora of causes lead to inflammation around the brain and spinal cord. Don’t take the chance that you could have a deadly form of the disease. Some cases of meningitis simply need the tincture of time, while others require hospitalization and intensive care. Any delay in obtaining treatment might be the difference between life and death.
Meningitis indicates inflammation around the brain and spinal cord. Some causes resolve without therapy; others cause death in 1-2 days without treatment.
Recognizing meningitis symptoms early on saves lives.
Severe headache, neck stiffness, flu-like symptoms, and photophobia (light sensitivity) could represent meningitis; seek care ASAP.
Archives of Virology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00705-020-04891-1
Cleaveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14600-meningitis
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/stroke/signs_symptoms.htm
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/non-infectious.html
The National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/meningitis-and-encephalitis-fact-sheet#3083_5