Although relatively rare, meningitis can be a life-threatening infection, especially for very young children and younger adults. Parents and caregivers can learn more about early warning signs and symptoms so that their children get the necessary treatment before it is too late. Let’s start with an overview of a few different types of meningitis, and then we’ll focus on the most serious — but preventable — form, bacterial meningitis.
What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the membranes covering the brain and spine. Bacteria and viruses can infect the meninges. The bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis can live in the mouths and throats of healthy children. It doesn’t usually cause illness, so many people are exposed and never become ill.
Are there different kinds of meningitis?
Yes. Parasites, fungi, amoebas, bacteria, and viruses can all cause meningitis. Thanks to vaccines that protect people against bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis in the U.S. today. Fungal and parasitic meningitis are very rare, especially in children and adolescents. Viral meningitis is usually mild — most children and adults get better after 7 to 10 days without needing treatment. In rare cases, particularly for newborns and immunocompromised children, viral meningitis can be severe.
How risky is meningitis for children?
If untreated, meningitis, especially bacterial meningitis, can be life-threatening. Therefore, the faster a healthcare provider diagnoses and treats your child, the better off they are. What can be scary for parents is how quickly meningitis makes their children severely ill – some people can be near death in a few hours and about 10% of cases are fatal. People of all ages can get meningitis, but newborns, young children, adolescents, and people with weakened immune systems are at the greatest risk for serious illness.
Are some children at greater risk than others?
Yes. Infants under age one and adolescents generally have the highest rates of disease. There are some additional risk factors for children of any age, such as:
- Babies, especially those under two months of age
- Children with recurrent sinus infections
- Children with severe recent head injuries and skull fractures
- Children who have just had brain surgery
- Children with cochlear implants
What are the complications?
Some types of meningitis caused by bacteria can cause severe and lasting problems such as:
- Hearing loss
- Brain damage
- Paralysis of arms or legs
- Learning disabilities
- Limb loss by amputation
What are the symptoms in infants?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common childhood symptoms are:
- Not feeding well
- Sleeping too much
- Slow reflexes (not seeming alert)
- Constant crying
- A bulging fontanel (the soft spot on a baby’s head)
- Seizures, especially if they are running a fever
Why are adolescents at risk?
Adolescents are at increased risk due to the way they live their lives – the bacteria causing meningitis can be easily spread in group settings, through saliva, kissing, and sharing drinks. In addition, infectious diseases tend to spread where large groups of people gather, and adolescents and young adults like to gather. For example, college campuses frequently have bacterial meningitis outbreaks. Despite their increased risk, many adolescents don’t get the meningococcal meningitis vaccines recommended at ages 11 and 16.
What are the symptoms in older children and teens?
Early meningitis can seem like the flu, and symptoms may develop over hours or days. They include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Back and neck pain or stiffness
- Lethargy (feeling low-energy and tired)
- Sensitivity to light
Is meningitis contagious?
Yes. The bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis can easily spread from person to person through coughing, sneezing, kissing, or sharing eating utensils, a toothbrush, or a cigarette. Remember, though, only a small number of people who get infected with the bacteria or virus will develop meningitis. Babies younger than one year and adults with compromised immune systems (chronic health conditions or undergoing chemotherapy, for example) are more likely to develop severe meningitis. Nevertheless, talk to your doctor if a family member or someone you live or work with has meningitis. You may need to take medications to prevent getting the infection.
Are there vaccines for children to prevent them from getting meningitis?
Yes. The Haemophilus influenza type-b (Hib vaccine) is to thank for reducing mortality rates in children younger than five. Therefore, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend vaccinating all children older than two months with the Hib vaccine.
The WHO and CDC also advise vaccinating all children before age two with the Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) to protect against another type of bacterial meningitis. Talk to your pediatric care provider about additional vaccines if your child is at high risk because of medical or chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease or cancer.
Two additional vaccines (MenB and MenACWY) protect against strains that typically infect adolescents. The CDC recommends these vaccines for all kids 11 to 12 years old, with a booster later at age 16.
Don’t wait to call your pediatric care provider.
Meningitis is a serious illness that can become dangerous quickly. You can keep your child safe and healthy by ensuring all of their vaccines are up to date. It’s safe to get the meningitis-preventing vaccines at the same time as other vaccines at routine child health check-up appointments.
Beyond vaccination, trust your instincts about your child’s health. Contact your healthcare provider if you are worried that your child is not feeling well or not acting like themselves, especially if they are younger than two months old when the symptoms can be tricky to notice. When it comes to meningitis, sometimes, every minute counts. It is better to be safe and reassured that your child does not have meningitis than to delay treatment.
“Bacterial Meningitis.” CDC. CDC. July 15, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/bacterial.html
“Meningitis.” Mayo Clinic Press. Mayo Clinic Press. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/meningitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20350508
“Meningitis in infants and children.” healthychildren.org. American Academy of Pediatrics. July 13, 2021. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/head-neck-nervous-system/Pages/Meningitis.aspx