Meningitis Symptoms in Adults

By Katharine Paljug @YourCareE
September 25, 2023
Meningitis Symptoms in Adults

Meningitis is a sometimes fatal infection. Meningitis symptoms in adults can often be different from symptoms in children. Here's what you should know.

Meningitis is a disease caused by inflammation in the membranes that cover your brain and spinal cord. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorizes meningitis infections into five types.

Bacterial meningitis is one of the most dangerous forms of meningitis. It can spread through close personal contact, including coughing, sneezing, and kissing. In the United States, according to the CDC, it affects about 3,000 people every year. Around 300 of those cases are fatal. Many other people have permanent complications, such as a stroke, hearing loss, and brain damage.

Antibiotics can treat bacterial meningitis.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Diseases Caused by Bacteria


Viral meningitis is often less severe than bacterial meningitis, and most people will recover within seven to 10 days. Many contagious viruses can cause this form of meningitis, including the measles, mumps, and influenza viruses.

Fungal meningitis occurs when a fungus invades the tissue around your spinal cord. It is most common in parts of Africa, although small outbreaks of fungal meningitis do occur in the United States, often due to contaminated anesthesia or steroids used in hospitals.

Parasites can cause some cases of meningitis. Such infections usually occur when people are traveling and ingest meat, produce, or seafood contaminated with animal feces. An amoeba that lives in warm freshwater can cause parasitic meningitis.

The fifth type of meningitis is non-infectious. It is caused by some cancers, lupus, head injury, brain injury, or exposure to certain drugs.

Parasitic, fungal, and non-infectious meningitis are not spread from person to person. All three can lead to stroke, coma, heart failure, or death.

No matter the cause, meningitis symptoms in adults are often very similar.

Meningitis symptoms in adults

The initial meningitis symptoms in adults are often flu-like, including:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Neck stiffness
  • Confusion

One study found that nearly all patients have at least two of those four symptoms. Other symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • A sensitivity to light

Some severe forms of bacterial meningitis can cause kidney failure or shock. Viral meningitis can also cause sleepiness or trouble waking up from sleep, lack of appetite, and a lack of energy.

Signs of parasitic meningitis can include:

  • Loss of balance
  • Lack of attention to your surroundings
  • Hallucinations
  • Tingling in your skin
  • Seizures

Some research shows that meningitis symptoms in adults over age 65 may be slightly different than those of younger adults. Elderly patients with meningitis are more likely to experience confusion and trouble focusing, while being less likely to have neck stiffness and headaches. Other research indicates that elderly adults with meningitis are more likely to experience fever and loss of consciousness than younger adults.

Because different forms of meningitis have similar symptoms, it is impossible to know which type you have without proper testing. Meningitis often progresses rapidly after symptoms appear, so it is important to seek medical care right away.

Meningitis symptoms in children

Meningitis symptoms in children can be different than those in adults.

The typical symptoms of headache or neck stiffness may be difficult to diagnose, particularly in young children and babies. Instead, symptoms of meningitis in children usually include:

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Poor eating
  • Excessive sleepiness

Babies may have trouble waking up, even for eating, and lack alertness. They may also show bulging or fullness in the soft spot on top of their head.

Infants can develop meningitis at birth if their mother ate food contaminated with listeria or was positive for Group B Strep and did not receive antibiotics during delivery. Infants with meningitis often show symptoms soon after birth of:

  • Respiratory distress
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Lethargy
  • Jaundice

Protect against meningitis

Although meningitis is a dangerous disease, it is possible to protect against infection.

Vaccines for three types of bacterial meningitis are part of the regular vaccine schedule recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Research shows that vaccines have successfully reduced instances of childhood bacterial meningitis.

Some vaccines protect against diseases that can cause viral meningitis, including the vaccines for chickenpox, measles, and mumps.

Is meningitis contagious?

Because bacteria and viral meningitis are contagious, your hygiene habits will also help protect against bacteria and viruses that can lead to meningitis, including:

  • Washing your hands regularly
  • Cleaning household surfaces like remotes and doorknobs
  • Fully cooking raw meat
  • Cleaning surfaces before and after meal prep

You can contract fungal and parasitic meningitis when you travel, primarily in sub-Saharan or equatorial locations. The best way to protect yourself is to:

  • Check health warnings before you travel to make sure your destination is not experiencing meningitis outbreaks.
  • Drink or swim only in water you know is safe.
  • Make sure that all food has been properly cleaned and cooked before you eat.

Meningitis treatment

Antibiotics can treat bacterial meningitis. But no medicines can treat other types of the condition, which usually resolve after a week.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Our Infectious Disease section


September 25, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN