Symptoms of Aseptic Meningitis

It can cause severe discomfort and neurological symptoms

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Aseptic meningitis is inflammation of the meninges (the linings around the brain and spinal cord). It can be caused by inflammatory conditions or nonbacterial infections.

The most common symptoms include fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, and fatigue. Aseptic meningitis can improve on its own without long-term effects. However, seeking medical attention is important if you develop any symptoms because these nonspecific symptoms can occur with many different health issues.

Less often, aseptic meningitis can cause serious problems, like seizures, a stroke, or encephalitis (inflammation involving the brain tissue). Worsening aseptic meningitis can be life-threatening.

Most of the time, the signs and health consequences associated with aseptic meningitis are not as severe as those of septic meningitis (bacterial meningitis).

This article will discuss the frequent and rare symptoms of aseptic meningitis, complications, and when to see a healthcare provider.

Man in bed feeling stiff neck and headache from aseptic meningitis

Suphaporn / Getty Images

Frequent Symptoms 

Aseptic meningitis can feel like a bad cold but often involves neck soreness or stiffness. It may begin after a viral infection, such as an upper respiratory infection or an ear infection. You may also have symptoms during or after chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

The symptoms typically last for a few days and resolve on their own. However, don't wait to call your healthcare provider. Call to discuss your symptoms and ask whether you need to make an appointment.

Common symptoms include: 

  • A low-grade fever below 102 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Aching neck
  • Headaches
  • Photophobia (discomfort when looking at bright lights) 
  • Phonophobia (noises seem too loud and unpleasant) 
  • Decreased appetite 
  • Nausea 
  • Generalized body aches 
  • Tiredness, low energy, sleepiness 
  • Trouble concentrating 

You can have all or a few of these symptoms with aseptic meningitis. The fatigue or headaches can continue for a few days after most symptoms resolve. 

Symptoms in Infants and Toddlers

Infants and toddlers with any type of meningitis may act fussy, lose appetite, vomit, have a fever, stiff neck, and be sleepy and less active than usual.

Rare Symptoms 

Aseptic meningitis may cause severe discomfort. Sometimes the condition can last for longer than a few days, especially if it’s caused by medication-induced inflammation or if you have a weak immune system.

Less common symptoms of aseptic meningitis can include:

  • High fever 
  • Severe neck stiffness 
  • Pain with neck movement
  • Back pain 
  • Vomiting 
  • Dehydration 
  • Facial weakness 
  • Droopy eyelid 

These symptoms can indicate that meningitis is worsening, and you would need to be seen promptly by a healthcare provider for evaluation and treatment. Rest assured—with treatment, you are highly likely to fully recover without lasting complications, even if you have any of these rare symptoms of aseptic meningitis. 

Know the Symptoms

If you have risk factors, such as a weak immune system or an inflammatory disease that can cause meningitis (such as Sjögren's syndrome) it's important that you know the symptoms of aseptic meningitis so you can recognize them if you begin to develop the condition.

Complications/Subgroup Indications

In some situations, aseptic meningitis can worsen and can cause encephalitis, a severe ear infection, or a systemic (whole-body) infection.

Anyone can have worsening meningitis, but a viral or fungal infection is more likely to progress if you have an immune deficiency, such as due to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), AIDS, or medication-induced immune suppression). Parasitic meningitis is rare in many parts of the world, and it usually doesn’t resolve on its own. 

Severe inflammation due to a noninfectious cause can also persist or worsen and may lead to complications, especially if the underlying issue isn’t treated adequately. 

Progression of meningitis can cause: 

  • Hearing loss
  • Seizures, which can cause changes in consciousness or involuntary movements of the body 
  • A stroke, with vision changes or weakness of one side of the face or body
  • A brain hemorrhage (bleeding) with a severe headache and stroke symptoms 
  • Damage to the spinal cord, with weakness on one side of the body 

These consequences require prompt medical attention and may cause lasting effects due to brain damage, even after the inflammatory phase of meningitis or encephalitis resolves.

When to See a Healthcare Provider/Go to the Hospital

It’s important to contact a healthcare provider if you develop symptoms of aseptic meningitis. You might be advised to stay home and monitor your symptoms with at-home treatment, to make an appointment, or your healthcare provider may tell you to come in to be seen right away. 

This advice will depend on the severity of your symptoms, as well as your underlying medical conditions. For example, if you have an immune deficiency, your healthcare provider may tell you to get medical care due to the risk of a severe infection.

Additionally, aseptic meningitis has many of the same symptoms as bacterial meningitis, so if there is a concern about an infection that requires antibiotics, you may be advised to go to the hospital.

Get prompt medical attention if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • A seizure
  • Weakness on one side of the body 
  • Worsening neck or back pain
  • Pain in the neck or back when you bend your knees or when you flex your neck
  • Vision changes 
  • Persistent vomiting 
  • A severe headache
  • Worsening dizziness or light-headedness 
  • Change in behavior or a change in consciousness 

Summary 

Aseptic meningitis is inflammation of the meninges. It causes unpleasant symptoms, such as headaches, neck pain, and feeling run down. It often resolves without any long-term problems.

The symptoms of aseptic meningitis are similar to symptoms of other, more serious medical issues, like bacterial meningitis, so it’s important to contact a healthcare provider for guidance if you begin to experience any of the symptoms. Serious complications are not common but can include a stroke, seizures, and brain inflammation. 

A Word From Verywell

After the inflammation of aseptic meningitis resolves, it can take you a while to feel fully recovered. You might have low energy or lack an appetite, but these should improve over time. Make sure you follow up with your healthcare provider as you are recovering.

Worsening neck or head pain, vision changes, or weakness on one side of the body could be an indication that you have another, more serious medical problem. Get prompt medical attention if you develop any of these problems.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Heidi Moawad, MD
Heidi Moawad is a neurologist and expert in the field of brain health and neurological disorders. Dr. Moawad regularly writes and edits health and career content for medical books and publications.