Worldwide, over a million people develop meningitis. In the United States, about 2,600 people will get meningitis. While rare, this condition is not one to take lightly.
Because about 10-15% of those who develop this disease in the United States will die of it.
Disability is also likely.
Even surviving meningitis has the potential to result in lifelong disability, with an estimated one in ten people developing permanent disabilities as a result of this illness. These disabilities include:
- Hearing loss
- Limb amputations
- Brain damage
- Kidney function issues
So, just what is meningitis, and why is it so deadly?
What is meningitis?
Meningitis occurs when the membranes (meninges) that cover the spinal cord and brain become inflamed. Most often, it is caused by some type of infection.
How do you get meningitis?
Bacterial and viral infections are the most common causes of meningitis. These pathogens are spread by airborne droplets. Once the infection enters the body, it enters the bloodstream. From there, it can travel to the meninges, which ultimately results in inflammation.
What are the symptoms of meningitis?
Meningitis tends to come on suddenly and can rapidly become life-threatening. In fact, it’s not unheard of for people to die just a few hours after symptoms appear. That means being able to spot symptoms right away is crucial for getting help as soon as possible, which is key for survival.
The first symptom of meningitis? It’s nauseating—literally…
11. Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are classic signs of this condition. It’s important to note that nausea may not always be accompanied by vomiting.
When does nausea occur?
Nausea and potential vomiting are some of the first signs of meningitis. While this symptom can occur in anyone with this condition, children are especially prone to it.
Why does meningitis result in nausea and vomiting?
Nausea and vomiting often occur as a result of other symptoms of this condition. For example, nausea and vomiting might occur as a result of a severe meningitis-induced headache.
Nausea and vomiting might also be a reaction to the following symptom of meningitis…
10. Light Sensitivity/Photophobia
Photophobia is the technical term for an intolerance to light.
How severe is this photophobia?
Any type of light can result in light sensitivity and the related discomforts, such as a headache. If you are hospitalized for meningitis, the fluorescent lights that hospitals typically use can cause this level of sensitivity. It is ideal to ask the healthcare staff to keep the light levels low whenever possible to reduce your risk of this symptom developing.
How common is this symptom?
It is estimated that up to 88 percent of younger people who contract meningitis experience this symptom.
Why does meningitis cause photophobia?
It’s all about the location of this infection. Specifically, when you have meningitis, there is significant inflammation in the spinal cord and brain meninges. Having inflammation in these areas can cause a variety of symptoms, including light sensitivity.
This symptom may also occur as the result of an intense headache.
The following symptom of meningitis can make it that much harder to get out of bed to call for help…
9. Muscle Pain
Any muscle can become sore or even pained as a result of meningitis.
How severe is the pain?
The level of discomfort that you experience will vary. Some people report muscle pain that is rather significant, especially if they have been fighting bacterial meningitis for several days.
Why does meningitis cause muscle pain?
Muscle pain usually results from inflammation and fever.
Well, when you have a bacterial infection, your body sends an army of white blood cells to the source of the infection; inflammation is a natural part of the process. This inflammation is what causes the stiffness and aching in your muscles.
Of course, you might not just feel physically uncomfortable but mentally disoriented, too…
When you have meningitis, it can alter your mental state and make you feel confused.
What is meningitis-induced confusion like?
Confusion is described as not being able to think clearly and becoming disoriented. In severe cases, people’s behavior may be completely out of character for them. For example, they are unable to make decisions and they may even become aggressive as a result of confusion.
Why does meningitis cause confusion?
The membrane around your brain becomes inflamed when you have meningitis. Given the location of the inflammation, your brain can be affected. Naturally, that means cognition and decision-making abilities may suffer.
The following symptom of meningitis? It’s fairly easy to spot…
7. Mottled Skin
This symptom is also referred to as livedo reticularis, and it is quite common for meningitis patients to experience.
What does this symptom look like?
When your skin is mottled, it can appear abnormal in color and patchy. The colors that are often associated with mottling include purple and red. It may also present as streaks, spots, or marks on your skin.
Why does meningitis cause mottled skin?
Before meningitis can affect the meninges, it first must travel through the bloodstream. Now, when the infection is bad enough, it can cause capillaries (blood vessels) to leaks. These leaks may appear as mottled skin.
How severe is this symptom?
In most cases, mottled skin it is indicative of sepsis, which can be fatal within hours if it is not immediately and aggressively treated quickly with antibiotics and supportive care.
Mottling isn’t the only way that meningitis can be visible on the skin…
This symptom often occurs in the later stages of bacterial meningitis. This rash will spread and grow as the infection spreads and worsens.
On people with lighter skin, it tends to be more obvious. Unfortunately, this symptom can be a little trickier to spot on darker skin.
What does the rash look like?
At first, the rash might present as little pinpricks on the skin. As the condition worsens, the rash may almost resemble a patch of bruises, appearing red, pink, or even purple in color.
Why does meningitis cause rashes?
This rash occurs as a result of the bacteria getting into your blood. Specifically, as the bacteria works its way throughout your bloodstream, the rash will spread to these areas.
How exactly does it happen, though?
The bacteria associated with meningitis can target the cells that are located around the capillaries. As the targeted cells become damaged, blood may start to leak from the capillaries, resulting in the pinprick marks on the skin.
The upcoming sign of meningitis is an early symptom that needs medical attention right away as it can rapidly worsen…
For an adult, once a fever reaches 103° F, it becomes a major cause for concern.
What is a fever?
A fever describes an increase in your body temperature that typically occurs as the result of an infection. Specifically, the body intuitively knows that certain types of bacteria and other infections cannot survive in hot temperatures. Therefore, one of the immune system’s go-to ways to fight infection is to turn up the heat, in the hopes that it will kill the bacteria off.
Does the fever appear by itself?
Not often. Those with a high fever might also experience chills, or shivering. This shivering occurs for a similar reason as the fever. In other words, chills are the result of the body trying to generate enough heat to kill an infection. Notably, chills are the result of muscle contractions, which can generate heat.
Why does meningitis cause fever?
Meningitis is often the result of an infection. And, as discussed above, one of the best methods of fighting infection is fever.
Unfortunately, sometimes it’s possible for a fever to be too high; this high-grade fever is a sign of a severe infection, and it requires immediate medical attention.
What is considered a high-grade fever?
It varies by age and individual. Typically, though, the following is considered a high-grade fever for the following groups:
- Adults (oral temperature): 103° F (39.4° C)
- Children and Babies Over 3 Months (rectal temperature): 102° F (38.9° C)
- Babies Under 3 Months (rectal temperature): 100.4° F (38° C)
The following sign of meningitis? It’s a real pain the neck…
4. Stiff Neck
One of the hallmark symptoms of meningitis is a stiff neck.
How severe is the stiffness?
When your neck is stiff, it can be painful, and you may lose range of motion. For some people, they are almost unable to move their neck at all when they have meningitis.
Is the discomfort limited to just the neck?
It is not uncommon for the stiff neck to also cause some discomfort in your upper arms and shoulders.
Why does meningitis cause stiff neck?
This symptom occurs as a direct result of inflammation of your spinal cord meninges. More specifically, it occurs when the arachnoid and pia mater layers of the meninges are inflamed. Now, inflammation can trigger nerve fibers there, resulting in pain and stiffness in the neck.
The other classic symptom of meningitis? It’s also directly related to inflammation…
A headache is a common symptom of meningitis, and it is often one of the first symptoms that people report experiencing.
How severe is the headache?
For most people, this headache is best described as both unrelenting and severe. It can make you sensitive to light and even cause vomiting for some people.
Why does meningitis cause headaches?
When the meninges become inflamed, a headache can result. Specifically, some of your neurological processes will not continue on as normal, which can cause a headache and other associated symptoms, such as the following…
Lethargy is a state of being where you are lacking energy. With meningitis, lethargy is often accompanied by weakness.
How long does this symptom last?
It can take some time to recover from lethargy, even after the infection has been cleared from your body.
Why does meningitis cause lethargy?
Bacterial meningitis takes a major toll on your body. As a result, you may not be able to eat, and it can be hard to get around. All of these issues can contribute to weakness and severe exhaustion.
The final symptom of meningitis? It’s downright chilling…
1. Cold Hands and Feet
Cold hands and feet often indicate a severe case of meningitis.
When does this symptom occur?
For many people, this symptom starts shortly before the rash does. It typically means that the infection-causing bacteria is now in your blood (sepsis) and is spreading throughout your body.
Why does meningitis cause cold hands and feet?
The short answer
People who are septic tend to have low blood pressure. One side effect of low blood pressure? Cold extremities.
The long answer
Severe cases of meningitis can result in low blood pressure, or hypotension. With hypotension, it’s hard for the heart to pump blood throughout the body. So, naturally, places farther away from the heart—such as the hands and feet—end to get less blood circulation.
A side effect of less circulation? Coldness, as proper blood circulation generates heat.
What’s most important for someone who thinks they have meningitis to know?…
Think You Have Meningitis? Get Emergency Help Right Away
Many of the symptoms of meningitis are non-specific; in other words, they aren’t unique to just meningitis. After all, plenty of conditions can cause headaches, for example.
However, if these symptoms are severe and sudden, it’s time to seek help. This fact is especially true if you experience a stiff neck, which is highly characteristic of this condition.
How is meningitis treated?
Bacteria meningitis is treated aggressively with antibiotics. Doctors will also care for symptoms like fever and vomiting, both of which can become very serious if they are left untreated. Hospitalization often occurs so doctors can monitor patients for the development of potentially life-threatening complications.
How is meningitis prevented?
There are two types of vaccines available for certain varieties of meningitis.
- The conjugate type is typically given to children ages 11 to 12. Once they turn 16, they should receive a booster shot to ensure continued resistance to this infection.
- The serogroup vaccine is administered to people age 16 to 23. This vaccine is often recommended to people who are going to college. Why? Because such close living quarters (dorms) means it’s easy to spread meningitis quickly.