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Bacterial Meningitis in Children


What is bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the tissues and fluid that surround the brain and spinal cord. When bacteria cause the infection, it is called bacterial meningitis.

What causes bacterial meningitis?

Bacteria can spread to the brain and spinal cord from a nearby infection, through the bloodstream, or rarely can be caught from a person who has bacterial infection.

Three childhood immunizations have been shown to decrease the risk of a child getting meningitis. These vaccines include:

  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
  • Pneumococcal (PCV7)
  • Meningococcal

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of meningitis can come on very fast (over a few hours) or more slowly (over a few days). Most infants and children will have a fever or cold followed by one or more of the following:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • body aches
  • fussiness
  • constant crying, sometimes high pitched cry
  • headache (often made worse by light)
  • confusion
  • back and neck pain or stiffness
  • rash

How is it diagnosed?

  • Spinal Tap: The only way to diagnose meningitis is to get a small sample of spinal fluid and test in the lab. This is done by a procedure called a spinal tap (also known as a lumbar puncture).
  • Other tests: Your health care provider may order additional tests to help determine the cause of your child’s illness.

How long will the effects last?

Bacterial meningitis is a serious illness. Your child may recover without any problems if the infection was found early and treated with antibiotics. Even with treatment, some types of meningitis can cause brain damage ranging from deafness to paralysis to death.

How is it treated?

Bacterial meningitis can be life-threatening. Your child will stay in the hospital for treatment. Treatment must begin right away. Antibiotics will be given for 1 to 3 weeks, depending on the type of infection. Your child will have blood tests to check fluid balance. Your child may need to keep taking antibiotics after going home from the hospital.

How can I help prevent it from spreading?

The bacteria causing the meningitis can be passed from person to person. A child can be contagious for 2 days to 2 weeks, depending on the type of bacteria. Your healthcare provider will let you know when your child is no longer contagious and can return to normal activities. Until then:

  • Wash your child's hands frequently.
  • Make sure anyone who has contact with your child washes their hands often.
  • Do not share cups or utensils.
  • Avoid contact with saliva, such as by kissing your child.
  • Make sure your child covers his mouth when he coughs.
  • Ask your child’s provider if other family members should take medicine or be vaccinated to prevent the disease from spreading.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call IMMEDIATELY if:

  • Your child starts to act very sick.
  • You or someone who has had contact with your child develops headache or neck stiffness.
  • Your child gets a fever and headache, or fever and a rash.
  • Your child has a seizure.
  • Your child acts confused.
  • Your child is hard to awaken.

Call within 24 hours if:

  • You have other questions or concerns.

Written by the Section of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, The Children's Hospital, Denver.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-06-28
Last reviewed: 2010-06-28

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

Copyright © 1996-2014 The Children's Mercy Hospital