Meningitis Symptoms and Treatment

Bacteria, viruses, and even fungi can cause meningitis, a serious infection of the brain and spinal cord. Learn the symptoms and treatment, which includes getting the meningitis vaccine.
Meninges and Meningitis
Meninges and Meningitis

What Is Meningitis?

Meningitis is the swelling of the meninges, (the membrane that surrounds the brain and the spine), and it is caused by either a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. Bacterial meningitis is the most dangerous of the three infections and can become life-threatening if not treated quickly. Viral meningitis may occur along with a viral infection elsewhere in the body as a result of gastroenteritis, chicken pox (varicella), or the mumps. It usually disappears on its own, without any long-lasting complications. Fungal meningitis is rare and usually occurs if the immune system has been compromised by cancer or HIV/AIDS.

Many different bacteria can cause meningitis. In newborns, the most common bacteria are Group B Streptococcus (GBS) and Escherichia coli. In children over 2 months of age, Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) and Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus) are responsible for most cases of meningitis. Before vaccination was introduced, Hemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) was also a dreaded cause of meningitis in children. Today, with routine vaccinations, Hib is a rare cause of meningitis. The incubation period for meningitis varies from a few days to few weeks, depending on which bacteria have caused the infection. Germs are spread through droplets from an infected person sneezing or coughing, but infection can also occur through direct contact with an infected person or feces.

Symptoms and Signs of Meningitis

Meningitis can start out like a cold or the flu and may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as coughing, runny noses, and sore throats. After a while, the symptoms worsen and the classic symptoms of meningitis appear: headaches, fevers, and stiff neck.

A stiff neck means your child won't be able to bend her chin down towards her chest or bend her neck backwards. In some cases, neck pain (caused by muscle tension or minor infections that lead to swollen lymph glands in the neck), combined with a stiff neck, can be a sign of meningitis. Test for a stiff neck by having your child sit up in bed, then hold a small toy or flashlight down near his belly button and ask him to look at it. If he has difficulty looking down, this is a sign of a stiff neck. Another sign of a stiff neck is when your child is unable to bend his head forward and down when vomiting.

A bleeding skin rash may also indicate meningitis. Tiny, bright red spots, small hemorrhages (tiny broken blood vessels under the skin), will appear. Unlike other infectious rashes, these hemorrhages will not fade, or blanch when pressed with a fingertip or glass. Over time, these spots may increase in number and size. Other symptoms include chills, joint and muscle pain, vomiting, sensitivity to light, cramps, low energy, and fatigue.

Newborns and babies may not show signs of neck stiffness, rashes, or fever. Instead, they?ll show vague symptoms, such as increased crying, increased irritability when held, sluggishness, lower body temperature, loss of appetite, increased spitting, and vomiting.

How to Prevent Meningitis

Many cases of meningitis can be prevented if parents make sure their child has received all recommended vaccines. Some vaccines protect against the bacteria that can cause meningitis; these include Hemophilus influenzae (Hib), meningococcus, and pneumococcus. If one child in your family or at daycare is diagnosed with meningitis, other children should be vaccinated or treated with antibiotics to prevent them from getting the infection or spreading the germ.

Treatment for Meningitis

Meningitis is a serious disease that can be treated only with immediate medical attention and hospitalization. It can quickly turn into a life-threatening situation that may involve shock, poor circulation, falling blood pressure, loss of consciousness, and heart and respiratory failure. A number of organs may become affected, such as the liver, kidneys, and heart.

If the child has bacterial meningitis, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics in addition to other intensive treatment. Your child will most likely be hospitalized for several days or even weeks, and it is important that he get enough rest and nourishment. Call your doctor again if your child does not improve at home, or if he seems to be getting worse instead of better. Meningitis is very serious and can be fatal. Even if your child does recover from meningitis, various types of brain damage, such as hearing loss, diminished sight, learning difficulties, and seizure disorders, including epilepsy, can be long-term effects of the infection.

Always call 911 or your doctor if your child:

  • Has a skin rash with little purplish or tiny, bright red spots that do not fade when you press them.
  • Has fever and neck pain or a stiff neck or back.
  • Has pain or stiffness and vomiting
  • Is less active and looks weakened. This may show itself as sleepiness, listlessness, increased fatigue, irritability, or confusion.

Copyright ? 2012 Meredith Corporation.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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