Following recent outbreaks of viral meningitis, many migraine patients have questions about possible signs of meningitis and ways to distinguish them from migraines. If you experience frequent migraine attacks, then it’s important to be able to differentiate between an approaching migraine headache and signs of meningitis.
What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection that occurs in the blood-brain barrier (BBB) that separates your brain fluids from your blood supply. When the membranes protecting your central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) become infected, the result is painful inflammation that triggers severe headaches (similar to migraines), fever, and nausea.
Causes of meningitis range from viruses, bacteria, and fungal infections.
Meningitis requires emergency intervention, so if you suspect that your headaches are not typical of migraines, you must contact your physician or ER immediately.
What are the risk factors of meningitis?
If you have not received vaccinations against meningitis, then you may be at risk. Other risk factors for meningitis include:
- Poor immune system
- Living in a closed community
- Working around domestic animals or livestock
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What are the symptoms of meningitis?
Symptoms of meningitis can occur in any order, and may increase slowly over several days. Sometimes, meningitis can be misinterpreted as flu, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or migraine headaches.
Meningitis symptoms include:
- Excruciating head pain
- Extreme sensitivity to light
- Loss of appetite
- Neck stiffness
- Intense fatigue, or sleepiness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Confusion, or “brain fog”
- Itchy skin rash
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How are migraine symptoms different from meningitis?
It’s important to be able to recognize the early signs of meningitis, especially if you suffer from chronic migraines. Unless treated, meningitis can lead to seizures, nerve damage, deafness, brain damage, paralysis, or death.
Here are some clues to help you tell the difference between migraine symptoms and meningitis:
- Migraine headaches characteristically occur on one side of the head only. With meningitis, unlike migraines, head pain in not restricted to one side.
- While meningitis causes hypersensitivity to bright lights, (a symptom also common with migraines), it does not affect your ability to tolerate loud noises, a mutual complaint among migraine sufferers.
- Migraines are often preceded by an aura, while there are no reports indicating visual distortions or blind spots occurring immediately before signs of meningitis.
After diagnosing meningitis, your doctor may prescribe strong antibiotics and headaches pain relievers. Steroids are also sometimes offered to alleviate symptoms.
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