Your brain and spinal cord are command central for almost everything your body does, so keeping them out of harm’s way is pretty important. They’re both covered by a membrane, called the meninges, which helps protect them from germs. Sometimes, though, meninges get infected by a bacteria or virus. That’s meningitis.
Viral meningitis is much more common than the kind caused by a bacteria. It’s also much less serious. Bacterial meningitis is rare, but can be deadly. Unfortunately, their symptoms are very similar, so it’s crucial not to ignore any of signs that might point to meningitis. So what should you be looking for?
It’s not unusual to have a fever and feel unwell any time your body’s fighting off germs. But it can be one of the first signs of meningits, says Susan Even, MD, executive director of the University of Missouri Student Health Center. If you’re out of energy, feverish, nauseous, and have a headache that gets steadily worse and doesn’t respond to medication, trust your gut. Meningitis can move fast, so if things just feel wrong, bad, or out of the ordinary, don’t wait—see a doctor.
It’s not like the crick in your neck that you got from sleeping funny last night. The pain from that kind of neck strain tends to stick to a specific area and gets better when you massage it or apply heat. Meningitis neck pain feels different. It gets worse when you stretch, and can involve more than just your neck and shoulder area. “Moving the neck up or down stretches the inflamed tissues of the meninges, which causes an intense, deep pain that may extend into the head or down the back,” says Even.
If you find yourself shielding your gaze from daytime light—or even squinting in well-lit rooms—take note. “Photophobia, or discomfort when bright light shines into the eyes or even with fully open eyes, is likely related to inflammation of the optic nerve in the back of the eye,” says Even. Usually, you’ll have a headache along with your aching eyes.
Your doctor might call it an “altered mental state,” which essentially means that you have trouble thinking straight. When infection is surrounding your brain, you can feel foggy and have problems concentrating. “It may be hard for you to explain what symptoms you’re having or follow simple directions, and you may not know where you are,” says Even. It’s a symptom to take seriously, so get to a doctor immediately.
Rashes are like a red flag telling you something’s up, and the small purplish dots that signal meningitis are no exception. Rash is a late and very serious sign that tells you you’ve got the bacterial kind of meningitis. It appears when the bacteria release a toxin into your system that makes small blood vessels in your skin and internal organs rupture. But it’s unlikely that it would appear without other symptoms already in play.
“By the time the rash appears, it may be too late,” says Even. “There can be organ damage, nerve damage to the brain, loss of fingers, toes or even arms or legs from the ruptured blood vessels and the damaged tissue.” If you’re already experiencing other problems and suddenly spots appear on your skin, it’s time to head for the ER.
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