Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, which is the membrane around the brain and spinal cord. If you think your child might have meningitis, you should take your child straight to the nearest hospital – it’s an emergency.
Causes of meningitis
Meningitis is caused by a bacteria or a virus getting into the spinal fluid of the brain and spinal cord, usually through the bloodstream. The bacteria or virus then infects the meninges, a delicate membrane around the brain and spinal cord.
Children under two months have the highest risk of developing bacterial meningitis. Children are less likely to get bacterial meningitis as they get older.
Meningitis is a medical emergency and needs immediate treatment. If you think your child might have meningitis, take him straight to the nearest hospital emergency department.
Meningitis usually comes after an upper respiratory tract infection like a cold.
Older children might complain of feeling generally unwell. They might have nausea, fever and tiredness. They might avoid eating.
Late signs of infection include headache, a sore and stiff neck, vomiting and an inability to look at bright light. There might also be a rash that doesn’t disappear if you press a glass on it. This rash happens with meningitis caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitides (known as meningococcal meningitis).
In younger children and babies, meningitis is very hard to diagnose on symptoms alone. This is because younger children can’t tell you that they have a headache or a sore neck. They might be off their food, irritable, listless and drowsy, and might also have a fever and be vomiting. If your very young child is unwell for no obvious reason, doctors will check for meningitis.
Viral meningitis is usually less severe than bacterial meningitis.
When to see your doctor about meningitis symptoms
You should see your doctor if your child:
- has an unexplained fever and is generally unwell
- complains of a persistent headache or sore neck
- says bright light hurts her eyes.
If you think your child has meningitis, he must see a doctor as soon as possible. If you’re in any doubt, take your child to the emergency department at your nearest hospital.
Tests for meningitis
If the doctors at the hospital think there’s a possibility of meningitis, they’ll do blood tests and a spinal tap on your child to confirm the diagnosis and work out which bacteria or virus has caused the infection.
If your child is very unwell, the doctors will start treatment for meningitis before they do the spinal tap.
Treatment for meningitis
If your child has meningitis, she’ll need to stay in hospital for treatment with antibiotics through a drip at first. After this, she’ll take the antibiotics by mouth. Treatment usually lasts for 10 days.
If the doctors think your child has bacterial meningitis, they’ll also give your child steroid medication to reduce swelling in the brain. This reduces the risk of hearing loss.
Children with bacterial meningitis usually make a complete recovery if the condition is diagnosed early and treatment starts straight away. If diagnosis and treatment are delayed, there’s a greater chance of permanent disabilities like hearing impairment, intellectual disability, epilepsy and movement disorders.
There’s no specific treatment for viral meningitis, but treating the symptoms is very important. This means you’ll need to get your child to drink lots of fluids and take paracetamol to keep him comfortable and help keep his fever under control.
Most children with viral meningitis recover completely.
Prevention of meningitis
Immunisation protects your child from some of the bacteria that cause meningitis, including Haemophilus influenzae, pneumococcus and meningococcal C.
Depending on the bacteria causing the meningitis, family and others in close contact with your child might need to take antibiotics to stop the disease from spreading.