Headache, vomiting, fever, fatigue--to most people, these symptoms might sound a lot like the flu. But in some cases, they could indicate a much more serious condition: bacterial meningitis. According to the American College Health Association, meningococcal disease, the leading cause of bacterial meningitis, strikes 1,400 to 3,000 Americans each year, many of whom are young adults, adolescents, and children.

More than a just mild infection, bacterial meningitis causes inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord and can result in brain damage, paralysis, or even death. Fortunately, early treatment can reduce the risk of complications. Follow these guidelines to spot the disease in its earliest and most treatable stages.

Bacterial Meningitis Symptoms

Because some of its symptoms are similar to those of viral infections, bacterial meningitis can be hard to diagnose. For adults, teens, and children, the first signs may come on quickly or surface a few days after the onset of a runny nose, diarrhea, vomiting, headache, fever, or other signs of an infection. In addition to those symptoms, telltale signs of bacterial meningitis include:

  • lethargy (decreased consciousness);
  • irritability;
  • photophobia (eye sensitivity to light);
  • stiff neck;
  • skin rashes; and/or
  • seizures.

In infants, bacterial meningitis may result in other symptoms, including:

  • jaundice (a yellow skin tint);
  • stiffness or rigidity in the body or neck;
  • fever or lower-than-normal temperature;
  • poor feeding or weak sucking;
  • high-pitched crying; or
  • a bulging soft spot at the top front of the skull.

Bacterial Meningitis Treatment and Prevention

The good news is that antibiotic treatment for bacterial meningitis is about 90 percent effective, and the sooner treatment can begin, the better the chances for recovery. If you suspect that you or a loved one has symptoms of meningitis, it's critical that you seek emergency medical help immediately.

In addition, there are two vaccines available to protect against meningitis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a new version of the vaccine, the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (also known as MCV-4 or Menactra), for people ages 2 to 55. An older type of vaccine, meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine (Menomune) is also effective for people older than 55. However, because both vaccines tend to wear off over time, it's important to talk with your doctor about guidelines for revaccination.