Page header image

Meningitis, Bacterial

What is bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the tissues and fluid that surround the brain and spinal cord. When bacteria cause the infection, it is called bacterial meningitis. Meningitis is a serious, life-threatening illness. If it is treated right away, chances of complete recovery are good. In some cases it may cause severe problems, including brain damage or death.

Another name for this infection is spinal meningitis.

What is the cause?

Bacteria can spread to the brain and spinal cord:

  • From a nearby infection, such as a bad sinus infection
  • Through the bloodstream, for example from a severe kidney infection

Some forms of bacterial meningitis can be spread from person to person. If you have had close contact with someone who has meningitis, tell your healthcare provider within 24 hours or as soon as possible. Close contact includes living in the same house, going to the same day care center, or having close personal contact, such as you might have with a partner, boyfriend or girlfriend. The bacteria can be spread by coughing or kissing. If you have had close exposure to someone who has meningitis, you may need antibiotics to help keep you from getting the disease.

People who have the highest risk of getting this disease are:

  • Older adults
  • People living in close quarters, such as military personnel and students in dorms
  • Children less than 5 years old
  • People with a medical condition that lowers their ability to fight infections, such as diabetes or HIV

What are the symptoms?

Bacterial meningitis can develop quickly or may develop over several days. Viral meningitis, which is usually a milder illness, can start with the same symptoms. The most common symptoms are fever, headache, and a stiff neck. Your child’s neck may be so stiff that he can't touch his chin to his chest. If your child has these symptoms, it is very important to get medical care right away.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Body aches
  • Fussiness
  • Constant crying, sometimes with a high pitched cry

Later symptoms may include:

  • Rash with red spots or blotches, or purple, bruiselike areas on the skin
  • Seizures
  • Severe confusion

In severe cases it can cause coma and death.

How is it diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history and examine your child.

Tests may include:

  • Lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, which uses a needle to get a sample of fluid from the area around the spinal cord
  • Blood tests
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the brain
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the brain

How is it treated?

Treatment must start right away and your child will stay in the hospital. Your child will be given antibiotics for 1 to 3 weeks. Your child may need to keep taking antibiotics after going home from the hospital.

How can I take care of my child?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • If your child is taking an antibiotic, make sure that your child takes the medicine for as long as prescribed, even if he feels better. If your child stops taking the medicine too soon, he may not kill all of the bacteria and your child may get sick again.

Ask your child’s healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
  • How long it will take for your child to recover
  • If there are activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to normal activities
  • How to take care of your child at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them

Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent bacterial meningitis?

Three childhood immunizations help prevent bacterial meningitis. These shots are:

  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine
  • Pneumococcal (PCV13) vaccine
  • Meningococcal (MCV4) vaccine

Check with your healthcare provider to see if your child or others in your family are up to date with their shots or if they need more shots.

To prevent spread of bacterial meningitis to others:

  • Teach your child to wash his hands often and especially after using the restroom, coughing, sneezing, or blowing his nose. Your child should also wash his hands before eating or touching his eyes.
  • Your child should not go to work or school. Your child should avoid close contact with other people, including kissing and hugging. Ask your provider if other family members should take medicine or get shots to help keep the disease from spreading.
  • Use paper cups, or separate cups, and paper towels in bathrooms instead of shared drinking cups and hand towels.
  • Don’t share food and eating utensils with others.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.3 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-11-04
Last reviewed: 2013-12-04
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
Page footer image