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What Is The First Sign Of Meningitis? What To Watch Out For

Medically reviewed by Ika Villanueva Caperonce, MD · Infectious Disease · Makati Medical Center

Written by Lhay Ann Boctoy · Updated Sep 02, 2022

    What Is The First Sign Of Meningitis? What To Watch Out For

    Meningitis is an infection that causes the membrane protecting the brain and spinal cord (the meninges) to swell. This may be caused by bacteria, viruses, injuries, cancer, medication, and other sources.

    Meningitis is potentially life-threatening. Symptoms can escalate fast without early diagnosis and treatment. Following this, it is important  to quickly identify your symptoms correctly.

    The symptoms of meningitis can come along abruptly. Signs of illness develop within a week of being exposed to the source of infection. Meningitis is sometimes misidentified as a regular flu because it may manifest flu-like symptoms. But what is the first sign of meningitis? To correctly identify the symptoms of meningitis, you have to recognize the early signs of the disease, before it’s too late.

    What are the possible first signs of meningitis?

    Though some individuals are more at risk, anyone can get meningitis. In the first few hours of infection, the patient may display several flu-like symptoms. These symptoms may develop over several hours or days depending on what caused the infection.

    Symptoms may vary depending on the age group. Here are possible signs of meningitis you should not ignore:

    Signs and symptoms of meningitis in babies

    A large number of viral meningitis infections often occur in children ages five and below. Some of the symptoms may appear to be a regular childhood sickness. But meningitis symptoms develop quickly and get worse fast. If you suspect meningitis symptoms in your baby, seek medical help immediately.

    Here are the possible signs of meningitis in infants:

    • High temperature
    • Intense shivering
    • Refuses to feed
    • Irritability
    • Newborns and younger infants may present with bulging soft spot in the head and constant crying, difficult to comfort
    • Sleeping for longer periods of time
    • Stiffness in the neck and body
    • Unusual grunting sounds
    • Vomiting
    • Seizures, moving jerkily or else the body is limp and lifeless
    • More severe signs of sepsis, if present, may include cold hands and feet
    • Skin is getting paler or bluish
    • Difficulty in breathing or breathing rapidly
    • Other accompanying symptoms can include rashes or marks and bruises on the skin, diarrhea, and cough or colds.

    Signs and symptoms of meningitis in toddlers

    The risk of meningitis in toddlers is higher than infants. This is the stage where your child is likely to touch, grab, or place things in his mouth, including toys and dirt. Supervise your child’s playtime especially if they are playing outside. If you notice these following symptoms, seek medical help immediately:

    • Headache, neck stiffness, and light sensitivity are the classic symptoms in older children

    Other symptoms may include:

    • High fever
    • Shivering
    • Vomiting
    • Confusion
    • Sleepiness
    • Lethargy
    • Irritable and refusing to eat
    • Laborious breathing or breathing rapidly
    • Seizures or hypotonia (body becomes limp)
    • Other accompanying symptoms such as sore throat, respiratory symptoms, diarrhea, rash on any part of the body

    Signs and symptoms of meningitis in adults

    Meningitis imposes life-threatening dangers to adults as well. Symptoms of the disease can progress in as quickly as in a few hours. The classic signs and symptoms that are experienced by toddlers with meningitis also occur in adults, but not always as pronounced or as frequently.

    Adults can experience other nonspecific symptoms that may relate to the cause of meningitis such as chills, respiratory symptoms, joint and muscle pain, rashes on the skin.

    Signs and symptoms of meningitis in the elderly

    How does meningitis present in the elderly? It is often difficult to identify meningitis in older people. Symptoms differ from children and younger adults and may be mistakenly attributed to other health conditions. Older individuals with meningitis are less likely to complain about headache, stiff neck or light sensitivity compared to younger adults.
    Here is list of the signs and symptoms that may be experienced by elderly patients:
    • Fever
    • Drowsiness
    • Confused and incoherent
    • Irritability
    • Headache
    • Stiff neck
    • Seizures
    • Stroke

    If you observe any of these signs and symptoms, it is best to see your doctor immediately.

    Avoiding meningitis

    Meningitis may eventually lead to death when not met with proper treatment and medication. Delayed diagnosis may lead to permanent brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disabilities.

    Do not skip vaccines that help prevent meningitis. Good hygiene and a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of being infected. Watch what you eat, and keep your surroundings clean and germ-free. Remember, meningitis is potentially deadly. Trust your instincts and don’t wait for the symptoms to become severe and life-threatening.

    Key takeaway

    The typical signs of meningitis include high fevers, severe headaches, and confusion. Early identification of meningitis is key to ensuring successful treatment.

    Learn more about Infectious Diseases here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Ika Villanueva Caperonce, MD

    Infectious Disease · Makati Medical Center

    Written by Lhay Ann Boctoy · Updated Sep 02, 2022

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