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Recognizing Meningitis Symptoms in Children

Overview

Meningitis is inflammation in the membranes that surround the spinal cord and brain. Fungi, parasites, bacteria, or viruses can cause meningitis. In children under two years old, bacterial meningitis is the greatest risk. There are several bacteria that can cause meningitis. Immunizations can prevent some strains.

Meningitis can strike suddenly and progress rapidly. Although the symptoms of viral meningitis are similar to bacterial meningitis, there are some differences. The viral type generally clears up without treatment. But if bacterial meningitis is left untreated, it can be life threatening. Also, bacterial meningitis tends to occur in winter or early spring months. But viral meningitis is more likely to be diagnosed in summer.

Early diagnosis and treatment give your child the best chance of making a full recovery. If your child has warning signs of meningitis, contact your pediatrician right away.

Symptoms in Babies

In babies less than two months old, symptoms of meningitis can be easily overlooked. A newborn with meningitis may appear listless or irritable. You may notice increased crying, loss of appetite, and fever.

Two of the more obvious signs of meningitis are a bulging fontanel—that’s the soft spot on a baby’s head—and a very stiff neck and spine. A baby with meningitis may get irritated and cry even more when you pick them up.

The most common age to get meningitis is between two months and two years. Symptoms include:

  • high fever
  • excessive crying and irritability that increases with touch
  • sleeping more than usual, listlessness
  • loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting
  • skin rash
  • bulging fontanel
  • light sensitivity (photophobia)
  • stiff or arched neck and back
  • convulsions, seizures

Most babies with meningitis will have some, but not all, of these symptoms.

Symptoms in Children and Teens

Children and teens may have many of the same symptoms as infants. You may notice a distinct change in temperament and sleep patterns. Children may also complain of:

  • headache
  • pain or stiffness in the back or neck
  • aches in muscles, chest, or abdomen
  • chills
  • cold hands and feet

The Rash

The meningitis skin rash is due to presence of meningococcal bacteria in the bloodstream (septicemia). As the blood vessels become damaged, they bleed into the skin. The rash may begin small, but it quickly spreads and becomes dark red or deep purple. The rash may not be apparent on very dark skin, so check lighter-colored areas like inside the mouth, soles of the feet, and palms.

While not 100 percent accurate, the “glass test” may give you some idea if you’re dealing with septicemia. Press a clear drinking glass firmly on the rash. If the rash doesn’t fade and you can still see it plainly through the glass, seek treatment right away.

The Most Vulnerable

When it comes to meningitis, infants and young children are among the most vulnerable. One of the reasons for this is that their immune systems aren’t yet strong enough to fight infection. Certain groups of children are at greater risk, including those who have had serious sinus infections, head injuries, or brain surgery. Signs of meningitis sometimes follow on the heels of runny nose, a cold, or diarrhea.

Some types of bacterial meningitis are contagious. It can spread by touching nasal discharge, saliva, or feces. Sharing kitchen utensils or personal items can also spread bacteria. That’s why bacterial meningitis can easily spread in day care centers and college dormitories.

Symptoms can progress very quickly and, without prompt treatment, bacterial meningitis can lead to delirium, coma, or death. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and HealthyChildren.org, seven out of 10 children with bacterial meningitis make a full recovery with early diagnosis and treatment. But in some cases, it causes damage to the nervous system, potentially leading to loss of hearing, limb amputations, seizures, and learning difficulties.

Symptoms of meningitis are similar to the flu or other common childhood illnesses, so it’s important to tell your doctor if your child has signs of meningitis. 

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