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Meningitis, Bacterial

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KEY POINTS

  • Meningitis is an infection of the tissues and fluid that surround the brain and spinal cord. When bacteria cause the infection, it is called bacterial meningitis.
  • Treatment must start right away and your child will stay in the hospital. Your child will be given antibiotics for 1 to 3 weeks.
  • Ask your healthcare provider how long it will take your child to recover from this illness, when your child can return to his normal activities, and how to take care of your child at home.

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What is bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the tissues and fluid that surround the brain and spinal cord. When bacteria cause the infection, it is called bacterial meningitis. Meningitis is a serious, life-threatening illness. It is an emergency. If it is treated right away, chances of complete recovery are good. In some cases, it may cause severe problems, including brain damage or death.

Another name for this infection is spinal meningitis.

What is the cause?

Bacteria can spread to the brain and spinal cord:

  • From a nearby infection, such as a bad sinus infection
  • Through the bloodstream, for example from a severe kidney infection

Some forms of bacterial meningitis can be spread from person to person. If you have had close contact with someone who has meningitis, get medical care as soon as possible. Close contact includes living in the same house, going to the same day care center, or having close personal contact, such as you might have with a partner, boyfriend or girlfriend. The bacteria can be spread by coughing or kissing. If you have had close exposure to someone who has meningitis, you may need antibiotics to help keep you from getting the disease.

People who have the highest risk of getting this disease are:

  • Older adults
  • People living in close quarters, such as military personnel and students in dorms
  • Babies and children less than 5 years old
  • People with a medical condition that lowers their ability to fight infections, such as diabetes or HIV

What are the symptoms?

Bacterial meningitis can develop quickly or may develop over several days. Viral meningitis, which is usually a milder illness, can start with the same symptoms. The most common symptoms are sudden onset of fever, headache, and a stiff neck. Your child’s neck may be so stiff that he can't touch his chin to his chest. If your child has these symptoms, it is very important to get medical care right away.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Body aches
  • Confusion
  • In infants, fussiness, irritability, or being less alert
  • Constant crying, sometimes with a high pitched cry

Later symptoms may include:

  • Rash with red spots or blotches, or purple, bruiselike areas on the skin
  • Seizures
  • Severe confusion

In severe cases, it can cause coma and death.

How is it diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history and examine your child.

Tests may include:

  • Lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, which uses a needle to get a sample of fluid from the area around the spinal cord
  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the brain
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the brain

How is it treated?

Treatment must start right away and your child will stay in the hospital. Your child will be given antibiotics for 1 to 3 weeks. Your child may need to keep taking antibiotics after going home from the hospital.

How can I take care of my child?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • If your child is taking an antibiotic, make sure that your child takes the medicine for as long as prescribed, even if he feels better. If your child stops taking the medicine too soon, he may not kill all of the bacteria and your child may get sick again.

Ask your child’s healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will get your child’s test results
  • How long it will take for your child to recover
  • If there are activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to normal activities
  • How to take care of your child at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them

Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent bacterial meningitis?

Three childhood immunizations help prevent bacterial meningitis. These shots are:

  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine
  • Pneumococcal (PCV13) vaccine
  • Meningococcal (MCV4) vaccine

Check with your healthcare provider to see if your child or others in your family are up to date with their shots or if they need more shots.

To prevent the spread of bacterial meningitis to others if your child is sick and after leaving the hospital:

  • Teach your child to wash his hands often with soap and running water and especially after using the restroom, coughing, sneezing, or blowing his nose. Your child should also wash his hands after touching pets and before eating or touching his eyes.
  • Your child should not go to work or school until his healthcare provider says it’s ok. He should stay home. Your child should avoid close contact with other people, including kissing and hugging. Ask your child’s provider if other family members should take medicine or get shots to help keep the disease from spreading.
  • Use paper cups, or separate cups, and paper towels in bathrooms instead of shared drinking cups and hand towels.
  • Don’t share food and eating utensils with others.
  • Take care of your child’s health. Make sure your child eats a healthy diet and gets enough sleep and exercise every day. Teach your child to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs. Help your child learn ways to manage stress. Teach your child to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax, such as by taking up a hobby, listening to music, watching movies, or taking walks. Have your child avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2016.4 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2016-09-21
Last reviewed: 2016-09-19
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright © 2016 RelayHealth, a division of McKesson Technologies Inc. All rights reserved.
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