Meningitis causes a characteristic rash on the skin. Learning to spot this and other symptoms can help a person receive the right treatment fast.

Meningitis is an infectious disease caused by certain viruses, bacteria, or fungi. It causes swelling of the meninges, the protective coverings of the brain and spinal cord. The most serious type of meningitis is caused by a bacterium called Meningococcus.

The disease can be life-threatening, and it requires immediate medical attention.

In this article, we describe how to spot a meningitis rash. We provide a picture guide, explore other meningitis symptoms, and discuss similar conditions.

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Meningitis causes a variety of symptoms, including a distinctive rash. This is not a traditional rash, caused by irritation or inflammation. Instead, it results from bleeding under the skin.

The bleeding develops after the disease has progressed to cause blood poisoning. The medical term for this is meningococcal septicemia. It leads to broken blood vessels, giving the appearance of a rash.

A doctor may refer to this as a meningitis rash or a “petechial” rash.

A rash caused by bacterial meningitis may have these characteristics, regardless of the person’s age:

  • tiny red, pink, brown, or purple “pinprick marks,” called petechiae, on the skin
  • purple bruise-like marks
  • blotchy areas of skin
  • pale or mottled areas of skin

The meningitis rash may be less apparent on darker skin tones.

The rash can appear anywhere on the body, and it may be easier to see on paler parts of the body, such as the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet.

Usually, the rash is not raised, so the skin is unlikely to feel rough or bumpy.

At first, the rash may be subtle, but it can spread to larger areas of skin. The rash may also become darker over time, as the body reabsorbs blood cells.

The rash usually occurs in the later stages of meningitis, when the disease is more serious.

It is crucial to seek medical care for any symptoms of meningitis, even if no rash is present. Receiving quick treatment greatly increases the chances of recovery.

Other types of meningitis produce other rashes. If a person has any rash and any symptoms of meningitis, they should receive medical care right away.

The glass test can help a person tell whether their rash may result from meningitis.

While it is not a reliable way to diagnose any disease, this test can help a person decide whether to go to the emergency room.

Press a clear drinking glass against the rash. If the marks are still visible, even with pressure, seek medical care immediately.

This is a sign that the rash is petechial, meaning that it results from meningitis or other serious illnesses that cause bleeding.

A meningitis rash can be difficult to see, especially on darker skin tones. Try the glass test on areas of rash that are easier to reach, such as the trunk or limbs, and lighter areas, such as the palms of the hands and the bottoms of the feet.

This test is not a surefire method of determining who needs medical care. Anyone with any meningitis symptoms should receive medical attention right away, even if their rash fades with pressure under the glass.

Anyone can get meningitis. In the United States, rates are highest in infants younger than 1 year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Infants with meningitis can have a variety of symptoms, including:

  • a fever
  • shivering
  • a stiff neck
  • arching of the back
  • cold hands and feet
  • turning away from light
  • excessive irritability, such as a dislike of being picked up
  • intense lethargy, an inability to wake up, or both
  • a bulging fontanel, which is the soft spot on the head
  • a refusal to eat
  • vomiting or diarrhea

The symptoms do not appear in any order. If a baby, or anyone, has any meningitis symptoms, they need medical attention.

If meningitis progresses to septicemia, a rash or unusual skin coloration may develop. This can happen within hours, as meningitis often progresses quickly.

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Teens and young adults have a higher risk of meningitis than middle-aged or older adults. The National Meningitis Association reports that 21% of all cases develop between the ages of 11 and 24.

Symptoms of meningitis in teens and adults include:

  • a severe headache
  • sensitivity to light
  • a stiff neck that is painful to move
  • abdominal pain
  • aches or muscle pain
  • a fever
  • double vision
  • mental changes, including confusion
  • vomiting
  • seizures
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Doctors can diagnose meningitis by performing one or more medical tests, such as:

  • a physical exam to check the symptoms
  • blood tests
  • urine tests
  • a test of spinal fluid, which surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord
  • a CT scan
  • an MRI scan

If a person tests positive for bacterial meningitis, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics.

Typically, a doctor takes a sample of spinal fluid to identify the type of pathogen that is causing the infection. But they may prescribe antibiotics right away, as a precaution, because bacterial meningitis tends to be more serious than viral meningitis.

Milder cases of viral meningitis may go away on their own in 7–10 days. More severe cases require hospital care. A doctor may prescribe antiviral medications.

Doctors may treat fungal meningitis with antifungal medicines.

A person with meningitis may also need medications to prevent seizures, as well as steroids to reduce brain inflammation.

People who may have a higher risk of meningitis include:

  • infants under 1 year of age
  • people who live in close communities such as college dorms or adult care facilities
  • anyone with a weakened immune system
  • people with certain medical conditions

Meningitis can be life-threatening, and it can get worse quickly.

Many people recover from meningitis with prompt medical care. However, long-term complications can include:

  • headaches
  • learning problems
  • memory loss
  • hearing problems
  • speech problems
  • vision problems
  • weakness or paralysis
  • seizures
  • kidney damage

Some types of meningitis can pass from person to person. Strategies for avoiding meningitis include:

  • not sharing foods, drinks, utensils, or personal items
  • washing the hands properly and often with soap and running water, especially before eating and after using the bathroom.
  • coughing and sneezing into the crook of the elbow, rather than the hands
  • staying home when ill and keeping sick children from attending day care or school

One of the best ways to prevent many types of meningitis is to get vaccinated. The CDC recommend meningococcal vaccines for everyone at 11–12 years of age, with a booster dose at age 16.

Vaccination may be especially crucial for children and adults with a higher risk.

A petechial rash, which stems from bleeding under the skin, does not necessarily result from meningitis.

Some medications and many health issues — including injuries and viral infections — can cause rashes that may appear similar. This is why it is so important to check for other meningitis symptoms.

Noticing other changes in a person’s well-being can help them receive the necessary medical care swiftly.

The outlook for meningitis depends on many factors, including whether the disease is bacterial, fungal, or viral, and the person’s general health.

Seek emergency medical care if a person has any symptoms of meningitis. Prompt treatment can greatly increase the chance of survival and reduce the risk of long-term complications.