Meningitis in Children

Meningitis is when the protective tissue around a child’s brain or spinal cord becomes inflamed. It is often caused by a viral or bacterial infection.

Remarkable Care for Kids

  • Expertise in meningitis-related vaccinations: Pediatricians at Rush University Children’s Hospital can work with you and your child to determine if your child should receive any vaccines that can help prevent bacterial infections that cause meningitis.
  • Pediatric infectious disease expertise: If your child has meningitis or has been exposed to meningitis, pediatric infectious disease specialists at Rush University Children’s Hospital can help provide treatment, education and preventive care when a meningitis outbreak occurs.
  • Neurological treatment for complications from meningitis: Pediatric neurologists at Rush are experts in treating the neurological damage that may occur after your child has meningitis, including hearing loss, seizures or learning disabilities.
  • A kid-friendly inpatient experience: If your child needs to be hospitalized for meningitis, Child Life Services specialists at Rush University Children’s Hospital help your child cope with the physical, social and emotional challenges of hospitalization.

What is meningitis in children?

The two types of meningitis in children are viral meningitis (which is more common and usually goes away on its own) and bacterial meningitis (which is rare, but it can be life threatening and cause serious complications if not treated quickly).

Any child can get meningitis, but the following groups are more at risk:

  • Students living together in close quarters, such as in boarding school or college dormitories
  • Children who are not properly vaccinated (routine vaccinations lower your child’s risk of getting both bacterial and viral meningitis)
  • Children with cochlear implants

Symptoms of meningitis in children

Symptoms of meningitis in children vary depending on the type of meningitis. Viral meningitis often causes mild, flu-like symptoms (fever and headache) that go away on their own. Bacterial meningitis can have more serious symptoms and requires medical care right away.

Contact your pediatrician if your child has the following symptoms:

  • Sudden high fever
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light

Contact your pediatrician right away if your child has meningitis symptoms. If symptoms come on suddenly, immediately call 911 or take your child to the emergency room. Quick treatment can prevent serious complications, such as brain damage or death.

If your child has a cochlear implant, contact your pediatrician if your child has any infection, such as an ear or sinus infection. Receiving proper medical care for a bacterial infection lowers the chance that the infection may spread and cause meningitis.

Symptoms of meningitis in babies

Babies with meningitis may have different symptoms than older children. Contact your pediatrician if your baby has any of the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Poor feeding
  • Body or neck stiffness
  • Irritability (difficult to comfort)
  • Sleepiness, lack of energy
  • Bulging soft spot on the head

Vaccines that prevent bacterial meningitis in children

Meningitis can be caused by many different types of bacteria. Vaccines can prevent your child from getting certain bacterial infections that cause meningitis.

Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine

Before the vaccine, H. influenzae was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children younger than 5 years old. On a routine vaccination schedule, your child will receive three to four doses of the vaccine, the first one at 2 months of age and the last one at about a year old.

Meningococcal vaccines

Meningococcus is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in children and teenagers. It is very contagious and can cause outbreaks in college dormitories and military bases.

There are two types of the meningococcal vaccine:

  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine is recommended for all children. Your child will receive the first shot at age 11 or 12, and then a booster at age 16.
  • Meningococcal B vaccine is not yet part of routine vaccination. It is recommended in certain cases, such as during an outbreak, in preparation for foreign travel, or before living in a dormitory.

Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine

Pneumococcus can cause bacterial meningitis and may lead to long-term brain damage. The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine protects against 13 strains of this type of bacteria. As part of a routine vaccination program, your child will receive doses of the vaccine between 2 and 15 months of age.

Vaccines that prevent viral meningitis

By following your pediatrician’s routine vaccination schedule, your child will be protected against some viral infections that can lead to meningitis, such as the following:

  • Measles
  • Mumps
  • Chickenpox
  • Influenza

Care for children with meningitis at Rush

Diagnosis

Your pediatrician will test your child’s blood and spinal fluid to determine what type of meningitis your child has. Your pediatrician may also order imaging tests to look for signs of inflammation in your child’s brain or spinal cord.

Treatment

A child with viral meningitis can usually recover at home. Your child will need to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. You can use over-the-counter pain relievers to control your child’s pain.

For bacterial meningitis, your child will be hospitalized and begin receiving intravenous antibiotics right away. Your child may also receive corticosteroids to control inflammation.

After recovery, your child’s care team may evaluate your child to check for neurological damage caused by the infection. This may include a hearing test or other tests to check brain function. Your child may be referred to a pediatric neurologist to address any neurological side effects from the illness.