Meningitis is a swelling (inflammation) of the thin membranes that cover the brain and the spinal cord. These membranes are called the meninges.
Meningitis is most often caused by a bacterial or viral infection that moves into the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF). CSF is the fluid that protects and cushions the brain and spinal cord. A fungus or parasite may also cause meningitis. This is more common only in children with a weak immune system.
Meningitis caused by a virus is more common and usually less severe. Bacterial meningitis is usually more severe and may lead to long-term complications or death.
Viruses that can cause meningitis include polioviruses, the mumps virus (paramyxovirus), the flu virus, and West Nile virus.
Bacteria that can cause meningitis include group B streptococcus, E. coli, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), and a strep bacteria that causes pneumonia. Syphilis, tuberculosis, and Lyme disease bacteria can also cause meningitis. The bacteria, viruses, and fungi that cause meningitis usually grow in a person’s respiratory tract. A child may have no symptoms at all, but may carry the organism in his or her nose and throat. They may be spread by:
An infection usually starts in the respiratory tract. In a child, it may first cause a cold, sinus infection, or ear infection. It can then go into the bloodstream and reach the brain and spinal cord.
A child is more at risk for meningitis if he or she has an infection caused by a number of viruses, bacteria, or fungi. Children with a weakened immune system are at great risk.
The symptoms of meningitis vary depending on what causes the infection. The symptoms may start several days after your child has had a cold and runny nose, or diarrhea and vomiting. Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each child. Symptoms may appear suddenly. Or they may develop over several days.
In babies, symptoms may include:
In children age 1 or older, symptoms may include:
The symptoms of meningitis can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she may also ask about your family’s health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. Your child may also have tests, such as:
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Treatment varies by type of meningitis. The treatments by type include:
While your child is recovering from meningitis, he or she may also need:
Talk with your child’s healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all treatments.
Bacterial meningitis is usually more severe and may lead to long-term complications. Some children may have long-term problems with seizures, brain damage, hearing loss, and disability. Bacterial meningitis can also cause death.
Several vaccines are available to prevent some of the bacterial infections that can cause meningitis. These include:
Vaccines that protect against viruses such as measles, mumps, chickenpox, and the flu can prevent viral meningitis.
Talk with your child’s healthcare provider if you have questions about the vaccines.
You and your child can do other things to prevent the spread of infections. Proper handwashing and staying away from people who are sick can help prevent meningitis.
Call the healthcare provider if your child has:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider: