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Meningitis, Bacterial



  • 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.
  • Treatment must start right away and your child will stay in the hospital. Your child will be given antibiotic medicine for 1 to 3 weeks.
  • Ask your healthcare provider how long it will take your child to recover from this illness, when your child can return to normal activities, and how to take care of your child at home.


What is bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the tissues and fluid that surround the brain and spinal cord. The brain lining becomes severely inflamed and swollen. When bacteria cause the infection, it is called bacterial meningitis. Meningitis is a serious, life-threatening illness. It is an emergency. 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 from another infected area

Some forms of bacterial meningitis can be spread from person to person. If you have had close contact with someone who has meningitis, get medical care 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 antibiotic medicine 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
  • Babies and 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 sudden onset of fever, headache, and a stiff neck. Your child’s neck may be so stiff that your child can't touch chin to chest. Symptoms may also include ear ringing or pain. If your child has these symptoms, it is important to get medical care right away.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Body aches
  • Confusion
  • In infants, fussiness, irritability, or being less alert
  • Constant crying, sometimes with a high-pitched cry
  • Ear pain

Later symptoms may include:

  • Rash with red spots or blotches, or purple, bruise-like 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
  • Urine 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 antibiotic medicine for 1 to 3 weeks. Your child may need to keep taking antibiotic medicine 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 medicine, make sure that your child takes the medicine for as long as prescribed, even if feeling better. If your child stops taking the medicine too soon, he or she 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 get 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 immunizations (shots) or if they need more shots.

To prevent the spread of bacterial meningitis to others if your child is sick and after leaving the hospital:

  • Teach your child to wash hands often with soap and running water and especially after using the restroom, coughing, sneezing, or nose blowing nose. Your child should also wash his or her hands after touching pets and before eating or touching the eyes.
  • Your child should not go to work or school until your child’s healthcare provider says it’s OK. Your child should stay home. Your child should avoid close contact with other people, including kissing and hugging. Ask your child’s provider if other family members should take medicine or get shots to help keep the disease from spreading.
  • Your child should not share silverware, dishes, clothing, towels, or bedding. Wash these items with hot water and soap before others use them. Your child should use paper cups, or separate cups, and paper towels in bathrooms instead of shared drinking cups and hand towels.
  • Use a household disinfectant often to clean surfaces that your child has touched or used, including toys, door handles, toilets, and sinks.
  • Take care of your child’s health. Make sure your child eats a variety of healthy foods and gets enough sleep and physical activity every day. Talk to your child about the risks of smoking, using e-cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and using drugs.
  • Help your child learn ways to manage stress. Teach your child to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax such as by taking up a hobby, listening to music, watching movies, or taking walks.
  • Have your child avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2022.1 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2022-01-03
Last reviewed: 2018-07-20
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.
© 2022 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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