Meningitis is the inflammation of the meninges (the membrane lining of the brain and spinal cord). Meningitis usually refers to infections caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi or other microorganisms. Newborn infants are at a high risk of infection from certain bacteria because their immune systems are weak and not fully developed. The following information on newborns and meningitis focuses on two forms of bacteria that can cause meningitis: Group B streptococcus and Escherichia coli (E. coli).
Causes of Meningitis in Babies
There are two types of meningitis that can affect newborns and children: viral and bacterial. Neonatal meningitis (either viral or bacterial) affects babies up to 2 or 3 months of age and any delay in medical treatment could put your baby at risk for death, deafness, and mental retardation. In older babies and children, if a virus causes meningitis, it is usually mild and goes away within ten days. Viral meningitis is the most common form of meningitis and it resembles the flu. However, bacterial meningitis comes on fast and is life threatening. Bacterial meningitis can be fatal and if not treated properly it causes brain damage, deafness, and blood poisoning.
Most viruses that cause meningitis in children are from the group known as enteroviruses. Other viruses, like herpes simplex may also cause meningitis. A bacterium that causes meningitis includes group B streptococci (GBS) and Haemophilus influenzae type B. Your baby can get viral meningitis when the virus is transferred into the air when someone coughs or sneezes nearby. It is also spread by poor hygiene. For example, by not washing your hands after going to the toilet is one way viral meningitis can spread. Since the bacteria that causes bacterial meningitis does not live long outside the body, your infant can only get it from being in close contact with an infected person. This usually means living in the same house as someone infected with bacterial meningitis. Your baby can also pick up bacteria from the following:
- Being kissed or touched
- People sneezing and coughing close by
- Sharing eating and drinking utensils, and other personal items like toothbrushes
- Most cases of bacterial meningitis are isolated, but clusters of it can appear. People who share a house with someone with bacterial meningitis are usually offered antibiotics as a precaution against infection.
Signs of Meningitis in Babies
The classic signs and symptoms of meningitis are a headache and a stiff neck. However, newborns and babies show other signs of meningitis such as the following symptoms:
- Body and neck stiffness
- Poor eating habits
- A bulge in the soft spot on top of a baby's head
- Crying all the time
- Tiredness and/or irritability
- Inactivity or sluggishness
You should get medical care immediately if you or someone in your family shows signs or symptoms of meningitis. These signs include:
- High fever
- Stiff neck
- Severe, constant headache
Viral meningitis may improve without treatment, but bacterial meningitis is serious and requires prompt antibiotic treatment to improve the chances of recovery. Delaying treatment for bacterial meningitis increases the risk of permanent brain damage or death and it can prove fatal in a matter of days if not treated immediately.
There is no way to know what kind of meningitis you or your child has without seeing a doctor and undergoing spinal fluid testing. It is also important to talk to your doctor if a family member or someone you work with has meningitis. You may need to take medications to prevent an infection.
Treatments of Meningitis in Babies
- With viral meningitis, the baby's immune system may be strong enough to fight it. Usually, no treatment is needed, but sometimes a physician prescribes medication – especially to newborns. You can treat your child's viral meningitis like you would with the flu.
- Make sure your baby gets lots of rest, takes medicine for pain relief and fever and drinks plenty of liquids. In some instances, a baby – especially a newborn – might need a hospital visit for a few days to closely monitor progress and symptoms.
- Bacterial meningitis requires flooding the bloodstream with strong antibiotics from an IV and babies may spend up to two weeks in the hospital during treatment. A strong regiment of antibiotics cures bacterial meningitis about 85 percent of the time, as long as the illness is caught within the first day or so that symptoms appear. That is why if bacterial meningitis is suspected, it is imperative to get your child to a doctor immediately.
Preventions of Meningitis in Babies
Meningitis is not entirely preventable, but a good method to ensure your baby does not get it is to make sure he or she is vaccinated against Haemophilus influenzae type B, or Hib. The vaccination is given as part of an infant’s standard immunization at 2, 4, and 6 months, with a final dose between 12 and 18 months. The vaccination has drastically cut the rate of child meningitis. You can also have your child vaccinated against Pneumoccus bacteria – a common and deadly form of bacterial meningitis. Another common cause of bacterial meningitis – Neisseria meningitides – is recommended for children ages 11 to 12, but it can also be given to younger children who are at a high risk or exposed to a meningitis outbreak.