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Meningitis & Encephalitis Headaches

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last review date: November 2010

Most headaches aren’t signs of dangerous conditions, however headaches can be caused by a range of underlying conditions. Anything that causes swelling/inflammation in the brain can be dangerous and cause severe, debilitating head pain. Meningitis and Encephalitis are two examples of these serious and life-threatening disorders.

What is meningitis?

When the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord become swollen or inflamed it causes meningitis, which is sometimes called spinal meningitis. It can be caused by a bacteria or virus. Meningitis caused by bacteria is far more serious, is rare and can be deadly. Bacterial meningitis can also lead to brain damage, learning disabilities and hearing loss. There is a vaccine available for one type of bacterial meningitis, Haemophilus influenza type b, Hib, which is given as part of a child’s regular immunization schedule.

Viral meningitis isn’t usually as serious as bacterial meningitis. Viral meningitis is the most common form in the U.S. and usually clears up on its own.

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Infections from fungus found in dirt and bird droppings can also cause a form of meningitis. It is treatable, but commonly recurs in infected patients.

Bacterial meningitis is caused by a bacteria and is rare and can be deadly. The bacteria leads to an upper respiratory tract infection that moves to the brain through the blood.

Symptoms of meningitis

  • Severe head pain, that isn’t similar to other types of headaches
  • Sudden Fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Sleepiness or difficulty waking up
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Seizures
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Loss of appetite
  • Skin rash

What is encephalitis?

Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain that is caused by viral infection. Most of the times, the symptoms are mild. In rare cases, encephalitis can be life-threatening.

Primary encephalitis occurs when there is a direct viral infection of the brain and spinal cord.

Secondary encephalitis occurs when the viral infection starts in another body part and then travels to the brain, leading to the inflammation.

Symptoms of encephalitis

Symptoms of serious encephalitis

  • Confusion, disorientation and hallucinations
  • Double vision
  • Rash
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Changes in personality
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of sensation or paralysis in areas of the body
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Bulging in infants’ soft spots, the fontanels

Many of these symptoms occur with other types of headaches. The best way to determine if a headache is the result of a more serious disorder is to see a doctor. Your physician can diagnose migraines or other headache disorders, as well as run different tests to determine if there is in fact something more serious to blame.