Meningitis is caused by either a bacteria or a virus getting into the spinal fluid of the brain and spinal cord, usually via the bloodstream. The bacteria or virus then infects the meninges, a delicate membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.
Meningitis is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment. If you think your child might have this condition, take him straight to the nearest hospital.
Meningitis commonly follows an upper respiratory tract infection, such as 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 occurs with meningitis caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis (known as meningococcal meningitis).
In younger children and babies, meningitis is very difficult to diagnose on symptoms alone. This is because younger children can’t tell you whether 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, meningitis is usually on your doctor’s list of possible diagnoses.
Viral meningitis is usually less severe than bacterial meningitis.
When to see your doctor
You should see your doctor if your child:
- has an unexplained fever and is generally unwell
- complains of a persistent headache or sore neck, and bright light hurts her eyes.
If you think your child has meningitis, she 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.
At the hospital, the doctors will do a lumbar puncture (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. They might also do some blood tests.
If your child has meningitis, he’ll need to stay in hospital for treatment with antibiotics through a drip at first. After this, he’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, such as hearing impairment, intellectual impairment, movement disorders and epilepsy.
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. You’ll also need to keep his fever under control. Most children with viral meningitis recover completely.
Free immunisation is available for several different causes of meningitis. Depending on the bacteria causing the meningitis, family and others in close contact with your child might need to take antibiotics to prevent the disease spreading.