What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the layers of tissue (called meninges) that cover the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is often caused by a virus, but the most serious type of meningitis is caused by bacteria. Both viral and bacterial meningitis can cause brain problems.
Older children with meningitis usually have a stiff neck, fever, and headache
Babies with meningitis are usually cranky (even when being held), eat poorly, or throw up
Doctors can tell that your child has meningitis using a spinal tap and blood tests
Vaccines (shots that healthy children need to help protect them from certain infections) can help prevent some types of bacterial infections that cause meningitis
Doctors treat bacterial meningitis with antibiotics
Some children die of meningitis even with treatment
What causes meningitis?
Meningitis is caused by a bacterial or viral infection.
Meningitis in newborn babies usually comes from a bacterial infection of the blood. This infection is caused by bacteria in the mother's birth canal.
Older infants and children usually get meningitis from contact with others who are sick. Vaccines have made some causes of bacterial meningitis very rare.
Who is most likely to get meningitis?
All infants and children can get meningitis, but certain babies and children are at higher risk. Risk factors include:
Contact within the past few days with someone who came down with meningitis
Having their spleen (an organ in the upper left belly) taken out due to cancer or injury
Birth defects of the face or head
What are the symptoms of meningitis?
Symptoms of meningitis vary by age. In all ages, symptoms of bacterial meningitis can get worse very quickly. A "warning sign" is a sick child who becomes unusually sleepy or who begins acting confused. A sick child who isn't fully alert or who isn't behaving normally needs to be taken to the hospital right away.
In babies younger than 12 months, early symptoms include:
Being fussy or cranky, even when held
Refusing to eat, or eating poorly
A high or low temperature
Swollen soft spot (fontanelle) on the head in infants less than 3 months of age
In older children and teens, meningitis often starts with a cold. Then, they get symptoms such as:
Watch children with these symptoms closely because they may quickly become sleepy or confused and will need emergency care.
How can doctors tell if my child has meningitis?
Doctors will suspect meningitis from your child's symptoms. To know for sure, doctors may do:
A spinal tap Spinal Tap Diagnostic procedures may be needed to confirm a diagnosis suggested by the medical history and neurologic examination. Electroencephalography (EEG) is a simple, painless procedure in which... read more (lumbar puncture) where a doctor uses a needle to get a sample of spinal fluid from around the spinal cord
Before doing a spinal tap in babies, doctors sometimes do an ultrasound Ultrasonography Ultrasonography uses high-frequency sound (ultrasound) waves to produce images of internal organs and other tissues. A device called a transducer converts electrical current into sound waves... read more or CT scan Computed Tomography (CT) In computed tomography (CT), which used to be called computed axial tomography (CAT), an x-ray source and x-ray detector rotate around a person. In modern scanners, the x-ray detector usually... read more to look for other problems.
How do doctors treat meningitis?
If your child has bacterial meningitis, doctors will give:
Antibiotics by vein (IV)
Sometimes, corticosteroids by vein
If your child has certain kinds of viral meningitis, doctors may give anti-viral drugs. Usually, your child will just be given medicine for pain and fever, such as ibuprofen.
Even with treatment, some babies and children die or have long-term problems from bacterial meningitis.
How can I prevent meningitis?
Vaccines Meningococcal Vaccine The meningococcal vaccine protects against infections caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis (meningococci). Meningococcal infections can lead to meningitis (an infection of tissue... read more may prevent many cases of bacterial meningitis.
Children who have been in contact with someone who has bacterial meningitis are often given antibiotics to help prevent infection.