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Dangerous Headaches: Bacterial Meningitis

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Meningitis related image Photo: Getty Images

How can you tell if the headache you’ve got is just a headache or something more? Most headaches are harmless but sometimes they can be a sign of something serious. Bacterial meningitis is one of the serious causes of headaches.

Meningitis (of all types) affects around 3 per 100,000 people and can cause disability or death if treatment is not administered promptly so it could save your life to know the signs.

Symptoms of Bacterial Meningitis

The symptoms of bacterial meningitis are:

• Severe headache
• Stiff neck
• Sensitivity to light
• Fever (over 100.4 F)
• Rash (not everyone has the rash, so if you don’t have a rash, don’t assume it isn’t meningitis)
• Muscle and joint pain
• Pale skin
• Blue lips
• Cold hands or feet
• Shivering
• Nausea and vomiting
• Drowsiness
• Confusion
• Seizures
• Rapid breathing

It may begin with muscular or joint pains, looking pale and feeling cold and shivery and then progress to a very bad headache and other accompanying symptoms.

If you or your loved one has a rash, it is usually blotchy and bright red and it doesn’t fade when you press on it with a glass (this is called the glass test and can be used to determine whether the rash is an ordinary skin rash or may be meningitis).

Babies and Children

Babies and children can have different symptoms. These are:

• Vomiting
• Refusing to breast feed or have a bottle
• Drowsy and difficult to wake up
• Irritability and not wanting to be picked up
• Becoming floppy
• Making jerking movements
• Pale or blotchy skin
• A blank, staring expression
• Unusual or high pitched crying
• A bulging fontanelle (soft spot on the baby’s head).

If your baby or child displays any of these symptoms or you have suffered the early warning signs of muscle pain and feeling cold, followed by a severe headache, you should seek emergency medical advice.

It may be caused by something else, but it doesn’t hurt to check and reassure yourself.

Risk Factors

Certain factors increase the risk of getting meningitis. These include having an immune deficiency, taking medications that suppress immunity (such as steroids), being in a setting where there are large numbers of people to spread the disease (for instance, a college campus or a daycare center), and not having been breast-fed.

Breast-feeding your baby can reduce the risk of them getting meningitis. Children who have been bottle-fed do not get this same protection. The peer reviewed medical journal, Acta Paediatrica wrote:

"Convincing studies demonstrate significant protection during breastfeeding against diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections, otitis media, bacteraemia, bacterial meningitis, botulism, urinary tract infections and necrotizing enterocolitis."

Certain children’s medications such as children’s ibuprofen, can cause meningitis in rare instances. This has been listed as a side-effect in the product information sheets.

In less developed countries, such as Africa, meningitis may occur when immune function is weakened due to poor living conditions and overcrowded housing.


If meningitis is suspected, antibiotic treatment is usually given straight away, before a diagnosis is complete. This is because of the severity of the illness. A full recovery is more likely with prompt treatment.

Blood tests will be taken that can confirm the presence of meningitis and a lumbar puncture is given to take a sample of cerebrospinal fluid to check for bacteria and viruses.


Antibiotics will be given intravenously (through an IV in the arm) so they get where they are needed quicker than oral antibiotics. Steroids or other medication may also be given to reduce brain swelling and oxygen and fluids to help stabilize the patient.

If the patient is in a very serious condition, ventilation and other intensive care support may be given.

Patients whose meningitis is caught early may expect to spend a week in hospital. Seriously ill patients who require ICU may be hospitalized for several weeks or months.


Meningitis Symptoms, NHS Choices. Web. 8 February 2012. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Meningitis/Pages/Symptoms.aspx

Meningitis in Other Countries, CDC. Web. 8 February 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/global.html

Meningitis Risk Factors, Mayo Clinic. Web. 8 February 2012. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/meningitis/DS00118/DSECTION=risk-factors

Human milk and host defence: immediate and long-term effects, Acta Paediatr Suppl. 1999 Aug;88(430):42-6. Abstract: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10569222

Children’s Ibuprofen Information Sheet, Boots Chemist. Web. 8 February 2012. http://www.boots.com/wcsstore/cmsassets/Boots/Content/Products/Pain%20Supports%20-%20CAT:%20A00000552/10097822.P/boots%20ibuprofen%206%20months.pdf

Joanna is a freelance health writer for The Mother magazine and Suite 101 with a column on infertility, http://infertility.suite101.com/. She is author of the book, 'Breast Milk: A Natural Immunisation,' and co-author of an educational resource on disabled parenting.

Reviewed February 8, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment3 Comments

I just wanted to say I am sorry to hear about the loss of your son.  Best wishes, Joanna.

February 8, 2012 - 3:19pm

As a parent who lost her 20 year old son to bacterial meningitis, and as the President of the National Meningitis Association, I want to stress the importance of vaccination. This particular type of meningitis shows no mercy. Adolescents and young adults are at increased risk, although no one, anywhere, anytime, is immune. The CDC currently recommends routine vaccination at ages 11-12, with a booster dose 5 years later. All kids entering college should have been vaccinated within 5 years. There are vaccines licensed for those 9 months and older. My 2 year old and 3 year old grandkids have been vaccinated, because my surviving son saw what this disease did to his brother. Protect the ones you love by vaccinating them.

February 8, 2012 - 2:57pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.



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