Kids Health Info

Meningitis

  • Meningitis happens when the meninges (the membrane covering the brain and the spinal cord) becomes swollen (inflamed). Meningitis is usually caused by either bacterial or viral infections.  Bacterial meningitis can get worse very quickly.

    Signs and symptoms

    The signs and symptoms of meningitis can be different depending on:

    1. The age of the child.
    2. Whether it is caused by a virus or bacteria.

    They may include:

    • fever
    • vomiting
    • seizures (fits)
    • headache
    • irritability and high pitched cry (especially in babies)
    • the soft spot on the top of a babies head, called the fontanelle, may bulge and look very full
    • tiredness or drowsiness (lethargy) or hard to wake
    • stiff neck in older children
    • dislike of bright lights (photophobia
    • rash which may vary in appearance but may look like red/purplish spots which do not turn white when you push on them (nonblanching)
    • babies may hold their head back or arch their back.

    How do you catch meningitis?

    The germs that cause bacterial meningitis are very common and are naturally found in the nose and throat of about one in every 10 people. They can be spread from person to person by coughing, sneezing, kissing or sharing eating or drinking utensils. Very close contact is needed for the infection to be transferred to another person.  

    A link has been made between developing meningitis and:

     

    • being in places where there is overcrowding of people
    • being in smoky environments - including households where there is cigarette smoke inside the house. 

     

    Treatment

    Your child's treatment and care depends on the type of meningitis he or she has. They will be given antibiotics directly into a vein (intravenous, or IV), until the type of meningitis is diagnosed.

    Treatment includes admission to hospital to:

    • diagnose the type of meningitis
    • give antibiotics if needed
    • closely watch your child's condition.

    Most people will make a full recovery after meningitis, but it can take time.

    To diagnose meningitis your child will need a lumbar puncture (see Kids Health Info factsheet: Lumbar Puncture). This is a safe test which is done by an experienced doctor who inserts a needle into your child's lower back, between the bones of the spine, to take a sample of the fluid around the spine (called cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF). A diagnosis of meningitis is made by examining this fluid and doing blood tests. The results from these tests can take two to three days to come back.

    Types of meningitis

    There are two types of meningitis:

    1. Viral Meningitis
      Generally, viral meningitis is not as severe as bacterial meningitis. The treatment does not include antibiotics because antibiotics do not work on viruses. Children with viral meningitis will continue to be watched closely during their hospital stay.
    2. Bacterial Meningitis
      Bacterial meningitis can be more severe and your child will need ongoing antibiotics. Your child will be watched closely throughout their hospital stay for any changes in their condition.

    The regular checks made on your child during their stay in hospital may include:

    • checking your child's neurological state and vital signs (such as heart rate, temperature and blood pressure)
    • giving fluids and medicines through a 'drip' inserted into a vein (intravenous, or IV)
    • doing additional blood tests
    • giving steroid medicines to reduce the swelling (inflammation) in their brain.

    While in hospital, the doctors caring for your child will discuss their progress and any further tests that may be needed with you. If meningococcal meningitis is suspected, it may be necessary for people who have had close contact with your child to receive antibiotics.

    Depending upon the age of your child, the type of bacteria and other factors, intravenous antibiotic treatment may be required for up to three weeks.

    Hospital In the home (HITH) - Wallaby Ward

    If your child has bacterial meningitis they may be able to finish their antibiotics by intravenous therapy at home. This is called hospital in the home (HITH), or Wallaby Ward.  Your doctor may talk to you about this if your child's condition has improved. A nurse from the RCH visits your child at home to give antibiotics and any other nursing care that is needed.  This is only possible if you live close to the hospital and your child is suitable for this care. 

    Follow up

    Most people will make a full recovery after meningitis, but it can take time.

    The possible after-effects of meningitis may include:

    • general tiredness
    • frequent headaches
    • difficulty in concentration and short term memory lapses
    • clumsiness or problems with balance
    • hearing problems
    • mood swings.

    After your child goes home, further tests may be needed to ensure their health. These tests will include a hearing test, as a small number of children who have had meningitis may develop problems with their hearing. Your child will also be reviewed in one of the specialist clinics to check their recovery. 

    Some children may be left with permanent damage and disability. Your doctor will be able to give you more information about your child's long term outlook.

    Prevention

    Several of the bacteria which cause meningitis can be largely prevented by the routine childhood immunisations. Making sure your child is fully up to date with these immunisations is the best way to prevent meningitis.

    If a certain type of meningitis is diagnosed, the doctor may recommend for those people who have been in close contact with the infected person to take antibiotics as a precaution to prevent meningitis infection. You will be advised if this is necessary.

    Key points to remember

    • Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges which cover the brain and spinal cord.
    • Meningitis is caused by an infection, either bacterial or viral.
    • Most people recover from meningitis, although it may take a long time.
    • Meningitis is spread by being close to an infected person, sharing eating and drinking utensils, sneezing, coughing and kissing.
    • Immunisation is the best prevention.

    For more information


     

    Developed in consultation with the RCH 5th Floor Medical Unit. First published: 2003. Reviewed November 2010.

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Disclaimer 
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.