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Bacterial Meningitis in Newborns


Brenda L. Tesini

, MD, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2022 | Modified Sep 2023
Topic Resources
  • Newborns with bacterial meningitis are usually irritable, vomit, or may have seizures.

  • The diagnosis is based on the results of a spinal tap and blood tests.

  • All untreated newborns die from the infection.

  • Pregnant women who have a certain kind of bacteria (group B streptococci) are given antibiotics during delivery to prevent spreading the bacteria to the newborn.

  • Antibiotics are given intravenously to treat the infection.

Meningitis that is caused by bacteria is life-threatening at any age but is of special concern in newborns.

  • Group B streptococci

  • Escherichia coli

  • Listeria monocytogenes

A number of other bacteria may cause meningitis as well.

Sometimes bacterial meningitis occurs in newborns when the bacteria enter the body through cuts or punctures in the scalp. The cuts or punctures can be caused by instruments that are used for delivery or by probes that are stuck to the scalp.

Symptoms of Bacterial Meningitis in Newborns

Older children with bacterial meningitis usually develop a stiff neck and have a headache. Newborns rarely develop a stiff neck and are unable to communicate specific discomfort. In newborns, important signs of illness that should alert hospital staff or parents to a possibly serious problem include

In some newborns with meningitis, increased pressure of the fluid around the brain may make the fontanelles (the soft spots between the skull bones) bulge or feel firm.

Diagnosis of Bacterial Meningitis in Newborns

  • Spinal tap

  • Blood tests

  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test

  • Sometimes ultrasonography or computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain

A doctor diagnoses bacterial meningitis by removing a sample of spinal fluid obtained through a procedure called a spinal tap Spinal Tap Diagnostic procedures may be needed to confirm a diagnosis suggested by the medical history and neurologic examination. Imaging tests commonly used to diagnose nervous system (neurologic) disorders... read more Spinal Tap (lumbar puncture). The fluid is analyzed, and if there are any bacteria in that sample, they are examined and grown (cultured Culture of Microorganisms Infectious diseases are caused by microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Doctors suspect an infection based on the person's symptoms, physical examination results,... read more ) in a laboratory for identification. Doctors also take a sample of blood to be cultured and analyzed.

Doctors may also do the PCR Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) Genetic diagnostic technologies are scientific methods that are used to understand and evaluate an organism's genes. (See also Genes and Chromosomes.) Genes are segments of deoxyribonucleic... read more test on a sample of spinal fluid. The PCR test looks for the genetic material of the bacteria and enables doctors to rapidly identify the bacteria.

Prognosis for Bacterial Meningitis in Newborns

Prevention of Bacterial Meningitis in Newborns

While pregnant, women are typically screened for group B streptococci (GBS) in their genital tract. Pregnant women who have GBS may be given antibiotics at the time of delivery to prevent passing the bacteria to the newborn.

Treatment of Bacterial Meningitis in Newborns

  • Antibiotics

While awaiting culture results, the newborn is given antibiotics (often, ampicillin plus gentamicin, cefotaxime, or both) by vein (intravenously). Once the culture results are available, doctors change the antibiotics, if needed, to ones that are appropriate for the type of bacteria causing the meningitis.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
Garamycin, Genoptic, Genoptic SOP, Gentacidin, Gentafair, Gentak , Gentasol, Ocu-Mycin
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