Your Baby and Health: Meningitis and Immunization

What is Meningitis?

Meningitis (also known as meningococcal disease) is usually caused by a viral infection, though in some cases a bacterial or fungal infection may be the cause of meningitis. Common bacteria and viruses that enter the body migrate through the bloodstream and infect the brain and spinal cord. This causes the inflammation of membranes and cerebrospinal fluids surrounding these areas.

Bacterial meningitis tends to be more severe than viral meningitis, and may be fatal if left untreated. As a result of current childhood immunizations, spinal meningitis is much less likely to occur in a child under the age of 15, though in the past it had been most prevalent in young children under the age of 5. The most common viruses that cause viral meningitis are known as enteroviruses, and are the same group of viruses that cause the stomach flu.

Signs and Symptoms of Meningitis

Early symptoms of meningitis are similar to the symptoms of a common flu, making it difficult to distinguish between the two. Common meningitis symptoms can include the following:

  • High fever and headache accompanied by a stiff neck, nausea, or vomiting
  • Confusion, sleepiness, or inability to concentrate
  • Difficulty walking or leg pain
  • Cold hands and feet or unusual paleness
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Loss of appetite or thirst
  • Skin rash (usually in cases of viral or meningococcal meningitis)
  • Seizures

Infants may not show the classic spinal meningitis symptoms. The following meningitis symptoms may indicate warning signs in babies and young children:

  • Continuous crying
  • Unusual sleepiness, irritability, or inability to make eye contact
  • Poor eating
  • Inflammation of the soft spots on the head
  • Spasms

The longer meningitis is left untreated, the more severe the complications of meningitis will be for your child. These can be serious and include permanent neurological damage such as hearing loss, blindness, loss of speech, and paralysis. It may also lead to kidney failure or complications of the adrenal gland.

Risks, Prevention, and Immunization of Meningococcal Meningitis

Meningitis can be highly contagious and people living in crowded areas such as student dormitories and childcare centers are at increased risk of developing meningitis.

The spread of bacterial meningitis occurs through the respiratory and throat secretions that may be exchanged through coughing, sneezing, and kissing or by sharing food utensils, toothbrushes, or cigarettes.

Teach your child healthy eating habits and proper hand washing techniques to prevent infection.

Meningitis vaccines are available to prevent infections and are a part of routine childhood immunizations in the United States. The haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine and the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV7) are both administered to children before the age of two.

Other vaccines have recently been recommended for adults and older children who are at increased risk of infection.

Diagnosis of Spinal Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis can be fatal and may progress as quickly as two days, making early diagnosis crucial.

Diagnosis of meningitis usually involves a physical exam in which your doctor will check you or your baby for infection around the head, ears, throat, and spine.

Some meningitis screening tests that may be performed include a throat culture to identify bacteria causing throat and sinus pain, and x-ray imaging to look for swelling and inflammation throughout the body. A spinal tap will most likely be performed to analyze a sample of cerebrospinal fluid and determine the type of bacterial infection.

Treatment of Meningitis

Once the cause of bacterial meningitis has been determined, the appropriate antibiotics will either be prescribed or administered intravenously to reduce the risks of meningitis. In some cases, accumulated fluid may require surgical draining.

Most cases of viral meningitis improve on their own within a week. There is no treatment available for viral meningitis other than bed rest, plenty of fluids, and pain medications to reduce fever and body aches.

While it is important for your child to maintain good health through diet, rest and regular exercise, only a doctor can diagnose and treat cases of meningitis. If your baby experiences any meningitis symptoms, call your doctor as soon as possible.