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Quick Facts

Meningitis in Children

By The Manual's Editorial Staff, ,

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 germs (bacteria). Both viral and bacterial meningitis can cause brain problems.

  • Older children with meningitis have 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:

  • A weak immune system

  • 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

  • Throwing up

  • Rash

  • Having seizures

  • 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:

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Stiff neck

  • Seizures

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 (doctors use a needle to get a sample of spinal fluid from around the spinal cord in the child’s lower back)

  • Blood tests

Before doing a spinal tap in babies, doctors sometimes do an ultrasound or CT scan 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 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.