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Jennifer L.W. Fink
Registered Nurse

Meningitis In Babies

Meningitis is a scary infection of the layers around the brain. We’ve got the answers you need to help protect baby against it, recognize its signs and treat her if she does get it.

What is meningitis in babies?

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the protective layers around the brain and spinal cord. It’s “actually caused by a variety of different bacteria and viruses,” including a bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis, says Jeffrey Kahn, MD, director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. Bacterial meningitis is usually more severe than viral meningitis; it can cause brain damage, hearing loss and learning disabilities. Before the 1990s, a form of meningitis caused by a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) was the leading cause of meningitis. Now, vaccination prevents most cases of Hib-related meningitis.

What are the symptoms of meningitis in babies?

Common symptoms of meningitis include fever, irritability and a rash that looks like very small red dots, “like almost pinpoint red dots,” Kahn says. In a very young infant, the soft spot (fontanel) on top of the head may bulge. A baby or toddler with meningitis might cry inconsolably.

Are there any tests for meningitis in babies?

If baby’s doctor suspects meningitis, he’ll probably order a blood test or spinal tap. A spinal tap is a medical procedure that uses a needle to take fluid from the spinal column; a sample of that fluid is then tested for the bacteria and viruses known to cause meningitis.

How common is meningitis in babies?

Thankfully, it’s a relatively uncommon disease in the US. There are only about 3,000 to 5,000 cases annually, and most people who get infected are older.

How did my baby get meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis is usually spread through contact with the nose or mouth secretions of an infected person. (Gross, we know. But little kids are notorious for spreading these fluids.) Viral meningitis can spread through direct contact and also through contact with the stool of an infected person — meaning diaper-wearing toddlers and infants can easily spread it.

It can be hard to figure out where and when your child caught viral meningitis, though, because there’s usually an incubation period of three days to a week before symptoms appear.

What’s the best way to treat meningitis in babies?

Baby’s treatment will depend on the type of meningitis. Viral meningitis normally resolves without medical treatment in a couple of weeks. Bacterial meningitis may require hospitalization but can be effectively treated with antibiotics. Depending on the severity of the disease, baby may need IV fluids to prevent dehydration.

What can I do to prevent my baby from getting meningitis?

Good hygiene is step one. Wash your child’s hands frequently, make sure her day care center follows strict hygienic practices and try to avoid sick people.

Immunization plays a role too. The Hib vaccine has drastically reduced the number of cases of meningitis caused by Hib. (To become immune, babies need two to three doses of the Hib vaccine by age six months and a booster shot around one year.)

A vaccine that protects against meningococcal meningitis is also available but not recommended for routine use in young children (right now, kids usually get the vaccination around age 12). But that may change soon, since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering recommending vaccination for high-risk infants as young as nine months. If you live in or travel frequently to a place where meningococcal meningitis is common, or if your child has an immune deficiency, baby’s doc may recommend she get it.

What do other moms do when their babies have meningitis?

“My daughter was in the hospital a week ago for meningitis. She's been congested since she was one month old. It was the high fever and her being lethargic that made us take her in. It was the high white count with no obvious source of the infection that led to three spinal taps (the first two failed). They don’t automatically give a spinal tap to newborns — only if there’s no obvious source of infection. Our case is not the norm, and you shouldn't freak out. Meningitis in newborns doesn’t happen as often as it did 20 years ago.”

Are there any other resources for meningitis in babies?

American Academy of Pediatrics’

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Jeffrey Kahn, MD, director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, Children’s Medical Center Dallas

PHOTO: Irina Efremova