How to tell if it’s meningitis

meningitis symptoms

[© Obencem | Dreamstime.com] Many cases of viral meningitis improve without treatment while bacterial cases can be life-threatening and require urgent antibiotic treatment. A sudden high fever is a common meningitis symptom.

With flu season approaching, it is important to know about meningitis, which shares many similar early symptoms with flu and can be mistaken for the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meningitis symptoms and signs of meningitis can begin to develop anywhere from several hours to several days from infection and may include:

  • sudden high fever
  • stiff neck
  • confusion
  • vomiting or nausea with headache
  • severe headache
  • seizures
  • light sensitivity

Symptoms for newborns are slightly different and include: constant crying, extreme sleeping, high fever, inactivity and lack of interest in eating.

Meningitis stems from a variety of causes, though most common are viral or bacterial. It is important to know the specific cause of the meningitis, as it determines the treatment and severity of each case, warns the CDC. Many cases of viral meningitis improve without treatment while bacterial cases can be life-threatening and require urgent antibiotic treatment.

Bacterial vs. Viral Meningitis
With bacterial meningitis, the earlier you get treatment, the better the chance of preventing serious complications. This form typically develops when bacteria enters the bloodstream and makes its way to the brain and spinal cord. Meningococcal bacterial meningitis is very contagious – particularly in crowded living conditions such as dormitories or close contact situations such as sports – escalates quickly and can be deadly. That is why we immunize children at age 11 when they tend to start being exposed to these types of environments. Children who are medically or genetically at a higher risk can be vaccinated as young as two months of age. This includes those with diabetes, sickle cell disease, immune deficiency or who are of Native American descent. A booster dose is typically given in the late teens before children head off to college. Infant vaccines (PCV13 and Hib) also protect against other forms of bacterial meningitis.

Viral meningitis is a more common form, occurring as a result of a virus such as measles, mumps, enterovirus, herpes and West Nile among others. This form of meningitis is milder than bacterial and evolves more slowly.

Viral meningitis doesn’t respond to antibiotics and should resolve on its own. However, as with any disease, trust your gut. If your child is lethargic and not responsive, and/or is refusing to eat or drink, take them to their pediatrician. If they have a terrible headache, fever and neck pain – especially down the middle of the neck – go to the emergency room.

Lindsay Fitch, M.D., is a pediatrician with Klebanow & Associates in Columbia. Call for an appointment, 410-997-6400.