Meningitis In Children: Symptoms, Causes, And Treatment 

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Inflammation of the thin membranes (meninges) that cover the brain and spinal cord is called meningitis. Meningitis could occur due to infectious agents, such as bacteria and viruses, and non-infectious factors, such as cancer and brain injury. Untreated meningitis could be life-threatening and may often cause long-term complications.

Read this post to know more about the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, complications, treatment, and prevention of meningitis in children.

Causes Of Meningitis In Children

A bacterial or viral infection that propagates through cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is the most common cause of meningitis in children. CSF flows in spaces between the meninges and cushions the brain and the spinal cord. Parasitic and fungal infections may also cause meningitis, and it often affects children with weakened immune systems.

Viruses that cause meningitis include (1):

Bacteria that cause meningitis include (1):

  • Group B streptococcus
  • Neisseria meningitidis
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
  • E. coli
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • Treponema pallidum (also causes syphilis)
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis (also causes tuberculosis)

Viral meningitis is less complicated than other types of meningitis. Bacterial meningitis could be severe and life-threatening if left untreated.

Children can also develop non-infectious meningitis due to the following conditions and factors (2).

  • Brain surgery
  • Cancers
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
  • Brain injury

Parasitic and fungal meningitis are usually less common. The most common fungal cause is the fungus Cryptococcus found in soil and bird droppings (3). Rat lungworm (Angiostrongylus cantonensis) is a common cause of parasitic meningitis. The parasite transmits through contaminated food and water (4). Exposure to contaminated water bodies, including swimming pools, can expose the child to Naegleria fowleri, a type of ameba that causes amebic meningitis (5).

Risk Factors For Meningitis In Children

Children with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop meningitis than other children. Pathogens can exist and multiply in other parts of the body, such as the nose and throat, without any symptoms. The following events could cause their transmission (6).

  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Sharing personal items
  • Close contact with an infected person
  • Touching contaminated doorknobs, toys, and surfaces and touching eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.

Untreated  cold, sinus infection, or ear infection may cause meningitis as a complication. During these infections, the pathogens could reach the blood and spread to the cerebrospinal fluid to cause meningitis later.

Symptoms And Signs Of Meningitis

Symptoms and signs may differ in each child, depending on the cause of meningitis. Some may have a rapid onset of symptoms, whereas others may develop symptoms over several days. In most cases, the meningitis symptoms are seen after an episode of cold and runny nose. Some may have a history of diarrhea or vomiting before the onset of meningitis’ signs and symptoms.

Common signs and symptoms of meningitis could include (7):

  • Neck pain
  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Back pain
  • Irritability
  • Sleepiness
  • Headache
  • Seizures
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
  • Lack of appetite
  • Decreased consciousness or drowsiness
  • Purple-red skin rashes

These symptoms can also occur in other conditions. Therefore, consult a pediatrician for an exact diagnosis.

When To See A Doctor?

Consult a pediatrician if your child has any of the following conditions.

  • Signs and symptoms of meningitis
  • Worsening of symptoms
  • The onset of new symptoms
  • Not vaccinated

Diagnosis Of Meningitis In Children

Symptoms, physical examination, and medical history could give the doctor clues for determining the presence of meningitis. The following tests confirm the diagnosis (8).

  • Blood tests to look for any infections in the blood
  • Lumbar puncture or spinal tap is the only diagnostic test for meningitis. Cerebrospinal fluid is collected from the lower back and evaluated for infectious agents and other indicators.
  • CT or MRI scan may be performed to visualize the brain. However, these tests alone cannot confirm meningitis.
  • Swabs from the nose, throat, or rectum could be collected to identify the presence of bacteria, virus, or another organism that may have led to meningitis.

Although there are some risks associated with spinal tap procedure, an experienced healthcare provider does the procedure without complications. In some cases, the cerebrospinal fluid analysis results are vital for diagnosing the cause and choosing a specific treatment.

Treatment For Meningitis In Children

Treatment options may vary depending on the severity, underlying causes, symptoms, and health status of the child.

The following are the common treatment methods for meningitis (9).

  • Bacterial meningitis requires immediate treatment with intravenous (IV) antibiotics. Corticosteroid medications could help reduce swelling of the meninges and decrease intracranial pressure. These medications could also decrease the risk of complications, such as hearing loss and brain damage. Tuberculous (TB) meningitis may require anti-TB medication for a year, including a combination of antibiotics.
  • Viral meningitis may resolve itself without specific treatment in many children. Children with weakened immune systems are treated with antiviral medications. Others may receive symptomatic treatment.
  • Fungal meningitis requires IV antifungal medicines.

Parasitic meningitis usually requires symptomatic treatment with medications prescribed to subdue inflammation and pain.

While your child recovers from meningitis, they also need the following supportive care.

  • Bed rest
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids or oral fluids to increase fluid intake
  • Medicines for fever and headache. Aspirin should not be given without prescription since it may cause Reye’s syndrome in children.
  • Respirator (breathing machine) or supplemental oxygen in case of breathing difficulties

You may discuss the risks, possible side effects, and benefits of treatment with the pediatrician since the treatment may vary depending on several individual factors.

Possible Complications Of Meningitis In Children

Untreated meningitis may result in life-threatening complications. Children with weak immune systems are more prone to complications of meningitis. Possible long-term complications of meningitis may include (10):

  • Seizures
  • Hearing loss
  • Brain damage
  • Various disabilities, depending on the affected area of the brain

Bacterial meningitis is usually more dangerous than other forms of meningitis. Always seek medical care if you notice signs and symptoms of meningitis in your child.

Prevention Of Meningitis In Children

Proper handwashing and staying away from an infected person could help prevent the spread of meningitis. Several vaccinations are available to prevent some of the etiologic agents of bacterial meningitis (11).

  • Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccine is included in the routine childhood vaccine program, and the first vaccine can be given at two months of age.
  • PCV13 pneumococcal vaccine is given to all children younger than two years, and PPSV23 pneumococcal vaccine is recommended for children with high-risk and older than two years.
  • Meningococcal vaccine is given at ages 11 or 12 years and a booster dose at 16 years as a part of the routine vaccine schedule.
  • Chickenpox vaccine, MMR vaccine, and annual influenza vaccine (flu shot) can protect against viral meningitis caused by the corresponding virus.

Even if your child is not vaccinated, you can vaccinate them anytime to avoid vaccine-preventable illnesses. You may plan your child’s vaccination after discussing it with your child’s pediatrician.

Timely diagnosis and treatment can cure meningitis and prevent its complications. You must ensure that your child completes the recommended course of treatment and follow-up visits to avoid recurrent meningitis. Always vaccinate your child as per the recommendations in your country to avoid vaccine-preventable diseases that can cause meningitis.


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