It’s an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that line the brain and the spinal cord. (Sometimes meningitis is called spinal meningitis.) Meningitis is usually caused either by a virus (aseptic meningitis) or by bacteria that travel through the bloodstream from an infection in another part of the body. A fungal infection can also cause meningitis, but this is much less common.
Meningitis that affects babies up to 2 or 3 months old is called neonatal meningitis. Whether viral or bacterial, it can be very serious, and any delay in treatment could put your baby at risk for deafness, intellectual disability, and death.
In older babies and children, viral meningitis – which is more common than bacterial meningitis – is typically milder and usually goes away on its own within 10 days. Many viruses that cause meningitis in children are from the group known as enteroviruses – for example, coxsackie, the virus behindhand, foot, and mouth disease, is an enterovirus that can lead to meningitis. Other viral infections, such as mumps, herpes simplex viruses (responsible for cold sores), and influenza can also cause meningitis.
Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, comes on fast and is very serious. The majority of children with bacterial meningitis recover with no long-term complications, but bacterial meningitis can cause deafness, blindness,developmental delays, speech loss, muscle problems, kidney and adrenal gland failure, seizures, and even death.
If my child has a fever, what are the chances she has meningitis?
Slim, but if you suspect it might be meningitis, have her doctor check it out right away. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1,000 adults and children in the United States come down with meningitis each year. Babies and adolescents age 16 through 21 have the highest incidence, but anyone can get it.
What are the symptoms?
That’s the tricky part, because the symptoms of meningitis aren’t always the same for everyone, and they don’t appear in any particular order. A high fever, stiff neck, and severe headache are the hallmark signs.
Other signs of meningitis include:
- sensitivity to light
- vomiting or nausea
- no interest in eating or drinking
- skin rash
If your baby has meningitis, you might notice some of these symptoms. Others, such as headache and confusion, are hard to decipher in a baby. Your baby might also be crying constantly and have a bulging fontanel (soft spot on his head). While it might be hard to tell if his neck is stiff, he may become more upset when you pick him up, and you might detect stiffness in his body, too.
If you have any inkling that your child may have meningitis, call his doctor right away. Early treatment is crucial.
How do children get meningitis?
There’s no simple explanation of why one child gets meningitis while another doesn’t. The organisms that cause bacterial meningitis live in the mouth and throat of many healthy children and adults without causing any problems. Little ones with abnormal immune systems, sickle-cell disease, or serious head injuries are at greater risk, but anyone can contract the disease.
Some babies contract a particularly virulent strain of meningitis during birth if the mother is infected with group B strep bacteria. That’s why pregnant women are tested for this bug. If Mom tests positive for GBS, she’ll be given antibiotics prior to delivery.
The good news is that meningitis is usually not nearly as contagious as the flu. If your child has meningitis, only those in very close contact with her need to be especially cautious: Avoid kissing her and sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses with her, for example. Make sure all household members wash their hands frequently.
If your child has bacterial meningitis, the doctor may suggest that family members take a course of antibiotics as a preventive measure.
Is it preventable?
Not 100 percent. The most important thing you can do is have your child vaccinated. Vaccines for polio, measles, mumps, varicella (chicken pox), andinfluenza all help protect against viral forms of meningitis.
In addition, make sure he’s vaccinated against the once-common culpritHaemophilus influenzae type B, or Hib (the vaccine is usually given at 2, 4, and 6 months, with another dose between 12 and 18 months). This shot, which has been part of the standard immunization schedule in the United States since 1987, has sharply reduced the incidence of childhood meningitis.
Another vaccine, called the meningococcal vaccine, is now also routinely given to ward off one of today’s most common and deadly forms of meningitis, caused by Pneumococcus bacteria.
Good hygiene can help prevent the spread of some types of meningitis:
- Wash your hands well and often – especially after using the toilet, changing diapers, and before preparing food or eating, and make sure your child washes his hands (or do it for him).
- Cover your mouth when you cough. Use a tissue or cough into your upper arm. When he’s old enough, teach your child to do the same.
- Clean surfaces that may be contaminated, such as remote controls, doorknobs, and toys. You can purchase disinfectant (including natural disinfectants), or you can make your own using a mixture of 1/4 cup of bleach and 1 gallon of water.
- Avoid sharing beverages, eating utensils, toothbrushes, and other personal items.
- If you have rodents in your home, take steps to eliminate them and clean up areas that have been infested. They can transmit a viral meningitis known as lymphocytic choriomeningitis, or LCM. To clean, wear rubber gloves and use a solution of 1 1/2 cups of bleach with 1 gallon of water. For more extensive directions, see the CDC’s information on lymphocytic choriomeningitis.
- Avoid being bitten by insects that transmit diseases (such as West Nile virus).