What is meningitis?

There are two types of meningitis. Both cause the tissue around your brain and spinal cord to swell. Viral meningitis is the most common and least serious. It can make you feel like you have the flu but often does not need treatment. Bacterial meningitis is more serious and can cause brain damage or death if not treated early. It is caused by some of the same bacteria found in pneumonia and strep throat. Both types are spread through direct contact with an infected person, especially through sharing food and drink.

Bacterial meningitis symptoms appear fast and feel like the flu. Most parents think they or their child have the flu and delay seeing a doctor. When that happens, you or your child could end up in the hospital with complications within a few hours of the first signs of illness. The good news about bacterial meningitis is that it can be prevented with a vaccine.

Symptoms of meningitis

Symptoms are slightly different, depending on whether you or your child are diagnosed with bacterial or viral meningitis. Viral meningitis symptoms include fever, low energy, poor appetite, irritability, and sleepiness. As an adult, you also may have a stiff neck and sensitivity to light. Bacterial meningitis symptoms include nausea, vomiting, confusion, and a sensitivity to light.

Watch for unusual signs of bacterial meningitis with a sick baby. Yellow skin (jaundice), problems sucking while taking a bottle, a high-pitched cry, and a bulge in the soft spot at the top of a newborn’s head are all symptoms of bacterial meningitis.

Without early treatment, a serious case of bacterial meningitis can cause stroke, hearing loss, permanent brain damage, and death.

What causes meningitis?

Viral meningitis is caused by a group of viruses called non-polio enteroviruses. These types of viruses are especially common in the late spring to fall. Not everyone who is infected with these types of viruses will develop meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis is caused by some of the same bacteria that causes pneumonia and strep throat. The germs that cause this type of meningitis can also cause a serious illness called sepsis. Sepsis is your body’s response to serious infection that can cause your organs to fail, damage to your body’s tissue, and even death.

Both types are spread through direct contact with an infected person, especially through sharing food and drink. Viral and bacterial meningitis affect people of all ages. Those who are more likely to get it are young babies and young people in close living quarters, such as in camps and college dorms.

How is meningitis diagnosed?

Doctors will take a sample of your child’s blood. Your doctor also may take a sample of fluid from your child’s spine. These will be sent to a lab to determine a diagnosis. If the test comes back as bacterial meningitis, further lab tests on the same sample will help your doctor determine a course of treatment.

For viral meningitis, doctors will take a blood sample (and a spinal fluid sample, if it is serious). For a less serious case of viral meningitis, doctors will swab your child’s nose and throat in the same way they do a throat swab for a strep test. They may also swab your child’s bottom and ask them to provide a bowel movement to send to the lab.

Can meningitis be prevented or avoided?

Planning ahead and getting a vaccine for bacterial meningitis is the best way to avoid the more serious type of the disease. Your doctor should provide you with a vaccination schedule for meningitis. Children should get the vaccine at 11 years and a booster at 16 years.

To avoid viral meningitis, tell your child not to share food and drinks with others. That includes straws and eating utensils. Tell them to avoid touching certain things that will transmit the disease, such as the contents of baby diapers, dirty tissues, and towels from other people. Your child should avoid hugging, kissing, or shaking hands with someone who is sick. When your child sneezes or coughs, he or she should be encouraged to cover their mouth and nose with a tissue or the sleeve of their shirt. Practice keeping hands clean by washing with soap regularly, and teach your child not to touch his or her nose and mouth with unclean hands. It’s helpful, too, to disinfect things like doorknobs, your child’s toys, strollers, and high chairs, as well as phones and computers. I you know your child is sick, it’s best to keep him or her home to avoid infecting others.

Meningitis treatment

Response time is important in treating meningitis. If you suspect your child has meningitis, get to a doctor or hospital quickly. If caught early, doctors can treat bacterial meningitis with antibiotics. They also will treat the early symptoms, including giving your child fluids through an IV to replace what they’ve lost from vomiting or not drinking. They also will give over-the-counter pain relievers for the fever and headache. For milder cases of viral meningitis, your doctor may send your child home with instructions to rest and get plenty of fluids. For more serious cases, your child may have to stay in the hospital until he or she is healthy enough to go home.

Your doctor may treat more serious complications such as seizures or stroke with prescription medicine. Your doctor also may test for hearing loss and check for brain damage in order to recommend treatment, therapy, or long-term care.

Living with meningitis

It’s possible to reduce the seriousness and complications of both bacterial and viral meningitis by seeing your doctor early. Timely diagnosis is important. For serious complications, such as hearing loss, stroke, seizures, or brain damage, your doctor will refer your child to specialists and therapists who can show you how to live with the long-term issues your child may face.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Does my child need the meningitis vaccine if he or she is going to camp, but is younger than 11?
  • Will my child feel any pain when the doctor takes a sample of spinal fluid?
  • Is my child at increased risk of meningitis at a daycare?
  • Is there a time of year that the risk of meningitis is at its worse?