Meningitis is an inflammation of the protective membranes, called the meninges, that cover the brain and spinal cord. It most often appears as a flu-like sickness accompanied by stiffness in the neck and sensitivity to light.
Children suspected of having meningitis should be examined by medical professionals immediately. While some types of meningitis are not serious, other types are life threatening and have a strong chance for permanent damage to the brain and spinal cord.
Symptoms of Meningitis
The symptoms of meningitis can vary, but the most common are flu-like, such as a fever accompanied by drowsy or sluggish feelings. Signs of meningitis in children also often includes a severe headache that doesn’t go away and heightened sensitivity to light. One way to tell if a child is suffering from meningitis, is to examine their neck for stiffness accompanied by pain when tilting the head forward.
When infants get meningitis, it doesn’t always manifest the same way it does in older children. Though the infant may also get a fever, they are more likely to express either extreme irritability or extreme lethargy. Infants with meningitis may also appear to be stiff in the neck and torso, and the soft spot at top and front of the infant’s head may appear swollen.
Meningitis in children can also show up in other ways, such as rashes and abnormal skin color, rapid breathing, and muscle aches.
What Causes Meningitis?
Meningitis is most commonly caused through an infection by microorganisms that travel through the blood into the cerebrospinal fluid used by the spinal cord and brain. Most infections are caused by viruses, however it can also occur through infection with bacteria, fungi and parasites.
Though some types of meningitis are spread through contact with bodily fluids or through the air, and other types are not contagious at all, trauma to the head or neck can also introduce an infection that causes meningitis. Pediatricians specializing in infectious neurological diseases are able to help.
Viruses are the most common source of infection that leads to meningitis, and is typically not as serious as bacterial meningitis. However, viral meningitis is still a serious illness so care should be taken to have a child checked if he or she shows signs of having meningitis. Viral meningitis is most often spread through physical contact such as kissing or through sneezing or coughing.
Bacterial meningitis is more rare than viral meningitis, but is far more serious. Because it can be life threatening, immediate medical attention should be sought out. If not treated immediately, permanent damage to the brain or spine can occur due to the infection.
Fungal meningitis is rare and non-contagious. It occurs when a fungus is able to penetrate the blood stream and reaches the cerebrospinal fluid. Children with weakened immune systems are most susceptible to an infection of this type.
Meningitis can also occur when a child becomes infected with microscopic parasites. Though there are a variety of parasites that can cause meningitis and other neurological problems in children, these cases are rare and are mainly contracted by eating undercooked meat or dirt.
Treatments for Meningitis
The treatments chosen for a child with meningitis will vary according to the source of infection. Vaccines exist that are designed to inoculate children to different types of viral and bacterial infections that lead to meningitis.
Children with viral meningitis are often treated similarly to those used if they had the flu. Bed rest, fluids and anti-inflammatory over-the-counter pain medication are usually the best recourse in those cases. If a child has a particularly bad infection, or if complications such as a weakened immune system exist, the child may be hospitalized for care and observation.
Children suspected of having bacterial meningitis will have laboratory tests taken of their blood and spinal fluid. If tests are positive, they will often be hospitalized and put on intravenous antibiotics with haste. Bacterial meningitis is a serious condition, so it is very important to ensure that children receive care immediately.
More rare forms of meningitis such as fungal and parasitic meningitis are often treated with medicine, both the treat the infection and manage pain.