Meningitis is an infection and inflammation of the three meninges, which are thin membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. The infection can be caused by either a virus or bacteria. Hemophilus influenzae, or "H. flu.," is the most common among the bacterial organisms that cause meningitis in children. An infection in the blood (bacteremia), ears, jaw, or sinuses can also lead to an infection of the meninges.
A newborn with meningitis may have poor muscle tone, difficulty feeding, a weak suck and cry, vomiting, irritability, sleepiness, and/or jitteriness. In infants, symptoms of meningitis include a high-pitched cry, irritability, loss of appetite,
vomiting, lethargy, and possibly a fever or convulsions. An older child is likely to have a fever, chills, vomiting, irritability, headache, and/or a stiff neck. Seizures and changes in consciousness, such as stupor or coma, are possible as the infection progresses.
Meningitis is a serious infection that is potentially life threatening and can cause such long-term consequences as hearing or vision problems. It requires immediate medical attention. If treated early and appropriately, there is a low likelihood of complications or lasting harm to your child.
SYMPTOMS OF MENINGITIS
The symptoms of meningitis usually come on quickly, especially in children, and involve some combination of the following:
Headache, often severe;
Stiff neck and back;
Changes in consciousness, from irritability through confusion to drowsiness, stupor, and coma.
In an infant, symptoms may be somewhat different, including:
A high-pitched cry;
A bulging or tight fontanel (soft spot);
Seizure and/or loss of consciousness.
If your child displays any of these symptoms, particularly after or while recovering from a respiratory illness or sore throat, call your doctor right away.
Meningitis is diagnosed by looking for signs of infection and the presence of an infectious organism in the spinal fluid. To perform a "spinal tap," a needle is inserted into a space between two vertebrae and a small amount of fluid is withdrawn for inspection. The process can tee difficult, as it requires the child to curl up and lie still. The doctor will use a numbing medicine on the skin before putting the needle in to lessen the pain, but it still feels like pressure in the back. The doctor will probably also take a sample of your child's blood to look for other signs of infection.
If meningitis is suspected, antibiotic therapy will be started immediately after the spinal fluid samples are taken. A doctor will not wait to get the results back to find out whether the meningitis is bacterial or viral, because the risks of not treating a possible bacterial infection immediately are too great. The antibiotic will be given intravenously, usually for a minimum of seven days. Ampicillin, penicillin, and chloramphenicol are commonly used antibiotics for bacterial meningitis.
If the meningitis is determined to be viral in origin, antibiotics are ineffective and will be discontinued. Rest, fluids, and nutrition, as well as measures to control fever and relieve pain, will be recommended to ease the discomfort and aid in recovery.