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Meningitis Infections in Infants and Children

Meningitis Meningitis

Meningitis is a swelling (inflammation) of the tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord. Sometimes, the swelling affects the brain. Meningitis can be caused by medications, injuries, and conditions such as cancer and lupus, but the most common cause is infection.

Vaccines protect against some—but not all—meningitis infections.

Learn about the different types of meningitis in children, which kids are most at risk, signs to know and other important information.

5 types of meningitis infections

  • Bacterial meningitis (several types of bacteria are involved) is usually spread from person to person. The bacteria can be found in or on the bodies of healthy children and adults. That does not mean they will become sick, but they can spread the bacteria to others. Bacterial meningitis can be deadly, so it is important to get medical help right away.

  • Viral meningitis
    Most meningitis infections are caused by viruses. Viral meningitis may be mild, but it is often more serious in infants less than three months of age and in other high-risk children. Certain viruses, such as herpes simplex, can cause severe cases of viral meningitis, even in older children and adults.

  • Amebic meningitis is caused by an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri. It infects people when the amoeba travels up the nose to the brain. It does not spread from person to person. The amoeba live in warm freshwater lakes and rivers where people swim. Naegleria fowleri can also be found in contaminated pools and splash pads, tap water, and soil. People cannot get infected by drinking water that is contaminated with the amoeba.

  • Parasitic meningitis is much less common than viral and bacterial meningitis. The parasites are mostly found in animals. People get infected when they eat contaminated foods or if they accidentally swallow soil that is contaminated by feces of infected animals.

  • Fungal meningitis is caused by several types of fungi that live in the environment (in the soil). This infection can also be spread to patients during medical procedures if infection control practices are not followed.

Fungal meningitis outbreak

Recently, there was an outbreak of fungal meningitis affecting people who had epidural anesthesia at two locations in Matamoros, Mexico, between Jan. 1 and May 13, 2023. Fungal meningitis can take weeks to develop, and mild symptoms can quickly become severe or deadly. Symptoms of fungal meningitis include fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity and confusion. Even if you do not have symptoms, you are at risk and should seek immediate medical attention.

Children at higher risk of meningitis

Children are at a higher risk of meningitis caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Children more likely to get the illness include:

  • Newborns and babies (Because their immune systems are not well developed, the bacteria can get into the bloodstream more easily.)

  • Children with frequent sinus infections

  • Children with recent serious head injuries and skull fractures, or who have just had brain surgery

  • Children with cochlear implants

  • Children who are not up to date on recommended vaccinations

With early diagnosis and proper treatment, 7 out of 10 children who get bacterial meningitis recover without any complications. Meningitis can lead to serious nervous system problems, deafness, seizures, paralysis of the arms or legs, or learning difficulties.

Signs and symptoms of meningitis in babies and children

Get medical attention right away if your child has any of these signs:

  • Newborns may have symptoms of fever, decreased appetite, listlessness, or increased crying or irritability. The signs can be subtle, so it is better to call for medical advice.

  • Infants and young children may have symptoms of fever, vomiting, decreased appetite, excessive crankiness and sleepiness, and a rash. Seizures along with a fever may be the first signs of meningitis. Note that febrile seizures have similar symptoms.

  • Older children may complain of a headache, back pain, a stiff neck and may be sensitive to bright light. A purple rash may also appear on any part of the skin; however it stands out most on the lower legs and feet, forearms and hands.

With early diagnosis and proper treatment, 7 out of 10 children who get bacterial meningitis recover without any complications. Meningitis can lead to serious nervous system problems, deafness, seizures, paralysis of the arms or legs, or learning difficulties.

Testing and treatment for meningitis

If your child has symptoms of meningitis, it is important to see a doctor right away. Meningitis can quickly become serious or deadly. It must be detected early and treated aggressively.

Lab tests are used to diagnose meningitis. This involves taking samples of blood, swabbing the nose or throat, or taking fluid from around the spinal cord (also called a spinal tap or lumbar puncture). To draw fluid, a special needle is inserted into your child's lower back. Testing of this fluid can help determine whether your child has meningitis.

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial meningitis.

Most people who have viral meningitis get better in 7 to 10 days. A child with a mild infection usually can recover at home with rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain medications.

Vaccines to protect against bacterial meningitis

Vaccines help protect against some types of bacterial meningitis. They help prevent all but one of the most common types of Neisseria meningitidis bacteria (types A, B, C, W and Y, but not X) known to cause meningococcal disease around the world.

Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) and pneumococcal vaccines can help prevent some other causes of bacterial meningitis. And, the measles, mumps, influenza and chickenpox (varicella) vaccines can help protect your child from less-common causes of viral meningitis.

Make sure your child receives the recommended vaccines by talking to their pediatrician.

More information

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases (Copyright © 2023)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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