Headache and Fever:
Should I be worried?
Headache and fever are a potentially dangerous combination of symptoms. On the one hand, the two symptoms are quite common. People get headaches by the millions every day, and most are perfectly benign. Fever occurs often too, with flu or other mild illnesses fever can be quite high.
So why is the combination of these seemingly common and harmless symptoms so important? A severe headache with a high fever can be warning signs of the development of bacterial meningitis, a severe and potentially life-threatening infection around the brain and spinal cord. It is generally a quickly evolving disease which can quickly lead to coma and death if not properly diagnosed and treated promptly.
Should I be worried if I have a headache with a fever? This depends. Obviously many people with other infectious diseases like the flu or strep throat can have a fever and may also suffer from headache. However, they will usually have other symptoms that distinguish their illness, such as runny nose, sore throat, cough, etc.
A meningitis headache has some features and associated symptoms which can help to set it off. First of all, the headache is generally progressive, getting worse with time. It can evolve rather rapidly to become quite severe. Additionally, the accompanying fever tends to be quite high with bacterial meningitis. Patients with meningitis also typically develop other symptoms as the disease progresses rapidly. Neck stiffness and/or pain, photophobia (irritation by bright lights) and nausea and/or vomiting. Clearly, some of these symptoms can overlap with flu as well, such as body aches and pains and nausea/vomiting. However, meningitis headache and fever associated will quickly lead to a deterioration in the patient's level of consciousness. They will become sleepy and lethargic first. Later this will evolve to the patient being increasingly stuporous and difficult to arouse. Eventually the patient will become completely unresponsive, in a coma. This will quickly progress to death.
Adequate treatment of meningitis requires that the disease be diagnosed early and treatment initiated early. The longer one waits, the more chance of a poor outcome. Therefore, while not all headaches that are accompanied by a fever are life-threatening, we should all be on the lookout for the other warning signs and symptoms of meningitis which can indicate a much more dangerous situation.
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This site is not intended to offer medical advice. Every patient is different, and only your personal physician can help to counsel you about what is best for your situation. What we offer is general reference information about various disorders and treatments for your education.