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Causes of meningitis

Meningitis is caused by a bacteria or virus getting into the spinal fluid of the brain and spinal cord, usually through the bloodstream. The bacteria or virus then infects the meninges, a delicate membrane around the brain and spinal cord.

Meningitis might happen during or after a viral infection like a cold. In other cases, your child might be well and get meningitis.

Children under two months have the highest risk of developing bacterial meningitis. Children are less likely to get bacterial meningitis as they get older.

Meningitis is a medical emergency and needs immediate treatment. If you think your child might have meningitis, take him straight to the nearest hospital emergency department.

Meningitis symptoms

Older children might complain of feeling generally unwell. They might have nausea, fever and tiredness. They might avoid eating.

Later symptoms include headache, a sore and stiff neck, vomiting and seizures. Children might not be able to look at bright light.

There might also be a rash that doesn't disappear if you press a glass on it. This rash happens with meningitis caused by the bacteria meningococcus. This condition is known as meningococcal meningitis.

In younger children and babies, meningitis is very hard to diagnose on symptoms alone. This is because younger children can't tell you that they have a headache or a sore neck. They might be off their food, irritable, low on energy and drowsy. They might also have a fever, vomiting or a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on top of a baby's skull).

If your very young child is unwell for no obvious reason, doctors will check for meningitis.

When to see a doctor about meningitis symptoms

You should see your GP if your child:

  • has an unexplained fever and is generally unwell
  • complains of a persistent headache or sore neck
  • says bright light hurts her eyes.

If you think your child has meningitis, he must see a doctor as soon as possible. If you're in any doubt, take your child to the emergency department at your nearest hospital.

Tests for meningitis

If the doctors at the hospital think there's a possibility of meningitis, they'll do blood tests and a lumbar puncture on your child to confirm the diagnosis and work out which bacteria or virus has caused the infection.

If your child is very unwell, the doctors will start antibiotic treatment for meningitis directly into a vein through a drip before they do the lumbar puncture.

Treatment for meningitis

If your child has bacterial meningitis, at first she'll need to stay in hospital for treatment with antibiotics given directly into one of her veins. After this, she'll take the antibiotics by mouth. Treatment can last up to 21 days.

Children with bacterial meningitis usually make a complete recovery if it's diagnosed early and treatment starts straight away.

If diagnosis and treatment are delayed, there's a greater chance of permanent problems like hearing impairment, intellectual disability, epilepsy and movement disorders.

There's no specific treatment if your doctor diagnoses viral meningitis, but treating the symptoms is very important. This means you'll need to get your child to drink lots of fluids and take paracetamol to keep him comfortable and help keep his fever under control.

Most children with viral meningitis recover completely.

Prevention of meningitis

Immunisation protects your child from some of the bacteria that cause meningitis, including Haemophilus influenzae, pneumococcus and meningococcus.

Depending on the bacteria causing the meningitis, family and others in close contact with your child might need to take antibiotics to stop the disease from spreading.