Meningitis: Know the Early Signs in Kids

November 2, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Richard Sultan, D.O. contributes to topics such as Pediatric Neurology.

Each year, about 2,600 cases of bacterial meningitis are reported, with 70 percent occurring in children ages 5 and under, according to the U.S. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Children under 2 are at highest risk for infection because of their immature immune systems, and boys are more prone to meningitis than girls.

What should you know about meningitis—an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord—in kids?

How Do Children Get Meningitis?

Even a child who’s undergone routine vaccinations, which can help protect against the germs causing meningitis, can develop the illness. Most common infections striking children, such as those of the upper airway, ears and sinuses, are minor nuisances and stay localized. But occasionally—and doctors don’t always know why—these infections spread to the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, triggering meningitis.

Meningitis can be caused by bacteria or viruses, but some cases develop from certain illnesses, such as tick-borne Lyme disease, or medication use. Bacterial meningitis is rare, but it’s more dangerous than viral meningitis and can become life-threatening without immediate treatment, says neurologist, Richard Sultan, D.O., director of inpatient pediatric neurology services at K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

“The seriousness of a meningitis diagnosis depends on the type, and there are different ways the illness can evolve,” he says. “But it often starts off as another infection, and children under age 2 are more prone to an infection in their bloodstream.”

Signs to Watch For

Meningitis cases show up in children in a variety of ways. Parents should watch for these potential early signs of meningitis in children:

  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Lack of energy
  • Headache
  • Vomiting

In older children, Dr. Sultan says, fever and headache are more prominent signs than in younger kids. Meanwhile, vomiting and stiff neck may signal a child is getting sicker. For younger children, focus instead on irritability, change of mental status, and level of alertness and interaction.

Ultimately, parents know what behavior is normal for their kids and should rely on their instincts when gauging whether their child may have signs of meningitis, Dr. Sultan says. “Most parents see enough common infections in their child, like ear or upper respiratory infections, to know how their child reacts in terms of discomfort or activity level,” he says. “If it doesn’t look like their standard reaction, especially with fever and deterioration in their consciousness level, that child should be evaluated in the emergency department.”

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The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.