Signs and Symptoms of Meningitis

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis are usually acute, developing within a few hours and last 2 to 3 weeks. It is important to seek immediate medical attention when symptoms occur, because acute bacterial meningitis can be fatal within hours.

Viral meningitis may develop suddenly or within days or weeks, depending on the virus and the overall health of the patient.

Characteristic symptoms of both viral and bacterial meningitis are stiff neck, headache, and fever. Symptoms may develop over the course a few hours (acute bacterial meningitis) or a few days. Some patients experience cough, runny nose, and congestion prior to developing other symptoms.

Other signs and symptoms of meningitis include the following:

  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Joint pain
  • Lethargy
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • Skin rash (commonly near the armpits and on the hands and feet)

Symptoms of meningitis in infants may be difficult to detect and include the following:

  • Bulging of the soft spots (fontanels) in the head caused by increased intracranial pressure
  • Decreased activity
  • Difficulty nursing or eating
  • Excessive sleeping
  • High-pitched cry
  • Increased crying and irritability
  • Vomiting

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 31 Dec 2001

Last Modified: 25 Sep 2015