Meningitis: signs and symptoms

Meningitis is a medical emergency. It can occur suddenly and requires immediate treatment by a doctor.

The classic signs of meningitis are:

  • fever;
  • severe headache;
  • stiff neck;
  • photophobia (can’t tolerate light); and
  • nausea and vomiting.

Other signs may include:

  • a rash;
  • irritability;
  • muscle and joint aches and pains; or
  • confusion, or difficult in concentrating.

Because infants cannot explain their pain, their symptoms may be more subtle than in adults. For example, the child may:

  • be listless or strangely quiet;
  • be irritable;
  • have no interest in eating;
  • have a very high pitched cry; or
  • have a bulging or tight fontanelle (top of the head).

Sometimes the early signs are not obvious, and neck stiffness may be absent in infants. Mothers are usually very instinctive about their children. If you believe there is ‘something not quite right’ with your child, you should take him or her to your doctor to exclude a serious illness.

Last Reviewed: 5 February 2010
myDr. Adapted from original material sourced from MediMedia.


1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningitis. About the disease: signs and symptoms [Website; updated Aug 2009]. (accessed Feb 2010).
2. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Meningitis: symptoms [Website]. 2008. (accessed Feb 2010).


myDr provides comprehensive Australian health and medical information, images and tools covering symptoms, diseases, tests, medicines and treatments, and nutrition and fitness.