Meningitis Symptoms in Children & Infants

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Meningitis scares many parents, but the illness isn’t always deadly. Meningitis causes the lining of the brain and spinal cord to become inflamed. Understanding the symptoms of meningitis helps you determine when your infant or child needs immediate medical attention, which is crucial for bacterial meningitis. Viral meningitis usually isn’t as serious and doesn’t always need treatment.


Child Symptoms

The typical signs of meningitis include neck pain, neck stiffness, headache and fever. The headache associated with meningitis is worse than a normal headache because it is caused by the inflammation of the brain lining. The fever is typically high, around 103 F. Vomiting and photophobia, or a condition where light hurts the eyes, are also potential symptoms.

Infant Symptoms

Infant symptoms are more difficult to assess since they cannot verbalize what they are feeling. The stiff neck and headache might be present, but you can’t tell just by looking at a baby if she feels those symptoms. A slowing in activity level, irritability, lethargy and decrease in eating are possible signs of meningitis. Like older children, infants might also have the high fever and vomiting symptoms.

Time Frame

The time frame for the symptoms varies from one person to another. In some children, the meningitis symptoms appear over the course of a few hours. In others, the symptoms might develop over a few days. The child might exhibit all the symptoms right away or only a few, but fever and neck stiffness or pain are almost always present in children with meningitis. The length of the actual illness varies. Bacterial meningitis often requires 10 to 14 days of antibiotics administered through an IV. Viral meningitis usually clears up on its own after seven to 10 days.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If your child complains of neck pain or stiffness, especially if other meningitis symptoms are present, seek medical attention right away. Bacterial meningitis can be particularly severe; it needs immediate treatment. If your child has a fever, vomiting and headache without neck pain, she might have another virus, but it’s worth a call to your doctor just in case. Because early treatment is so crucial, it’s better to err on the side of caution and have your child checked out if you suspect meningitis.

Diagnosis of Symptoms

When you seek medical attention for possible meningitis, the doctor will first examine your child to look for the major symptoms of the illness. If the doctor feels your child might have meningitis, he will order a spinal tap. This medical procedures withdraws a small amount of spinal fluid, which is analyzed to diagnose meningitis. The initial results indicate whether the child has meningitis, but full results can take 24 to 72 hours. The full results indicate whether the illness is caused by a bacteria or a virus. If the child continues to worsen, the doctor might start antibiotics before the results are back.

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