Meningitis in Infants – What is & How to protect your baby

Embark on a poignant journey into the depths of infant meningitis, a life-threatening condition that can strike without warning. Through Mary Ellen Avritt’s heartfelt narrative, witness the harrowing experience of her 11-day-old daughter, Angela, who was diagnosed with this devastating illness.

Spinal meningitis in infants

Accompany Mary Ellen as she navigates the labyrinth of fear, uncertainty, and resilience, grappling with the implications of Angela’s diagnosis. Witness the unwavering strength of a mother’s love as she faces the possibility of her daughter’s blindness or deafness, yet remains resolute in her quest for Angela’s recovery.

This compelling account not only provides a comprehensive understanding of meningitis symptoms, causes, and treatments but also serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit of a mother’s love. Prepare to be moved by Mary Ellen’s unwavering devotion to her daughter and her profound gratitude for each day spent with her beloved Angela.

Our beautiful baby girl was only 11 days old when she became ill with a low fever. She was whimpering as she slept and we quickly wrapped her in a blanket and rushed to our doctor’s office. As we arrived home the phone was already ringing. Her doctor, suspecting that she had the flu, had drawn blood and scolded me for allowing visitors to be close to Angela as we were in the middle of an epidemic in our little town of Girard, Ohio. But now he was on the phone telling me to take her to the hospital immediately to have what would be the first of seven spinal taps. He had looked at the blood test results and suspected that our baby had spinal meningitis. As we arrived in the emergency room the nurses were waiting for us, as the doctor had called ahead.

On the Edge of Illness

on the edge of illness - spinal meningitis

Our worst fears came true. After admitting the baby to the hospital and getting her settled in a quarantined nursery, we settled in to wait for three long days for the spinal tap results. She had somehow contracted meningitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord and brain, and it was a very rare strain. Our doctor consulted a pediatric specialist and they suggested that my husband and I allow them to try an experimental drug on our baby. It was our only hope, but there was a chance that she would end up being blind or deaf. But she was our precious gift from God and we agreed.

We were told that if the drug worked Angela would be well in three weeks. What a long time that seemed at the time. However, we soon realized that there were children on that floor who had much longer battles to fight, and three weeks was nothing to complain about. We met families who were meeting life’s heartaches and challenges head-on every day. They watched their children endure surgeries, chemotherapy, painful therapies only to face more pain and endless waiting at each turn.

As it turned out, the medicine saved Angela’s life and she has turned out to be a very healthy young woman. But the lessons her father and I learned as we met the other families during that time will forever remind us how precious each day with our daughter is.

By Mary Ellen Avritt

What is meningitis?

It’s an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that line the brain and the spinal cord. (Sometimes meningitis is called spinal meningitis.) Meningitis is usually caused either by a virus (aseptic meningitis) or by bacteria that travel through the bloodstream from an infection in another part of the body. A fungal infection can also cause meningitis, but this is much less common.

Meningitis that affects babies up to 2 or 3 months old is called neonatal meningitis. Whether viral or bacterial, it can be very serious, and any delay in treatment could put your baby at risk for deafness, intellectual disability, and death.

In older babies and children, viral meningitis – which is more common than bacterial meningitis – is typically milder and usually goes away on its own within 10 days. Many viruses that cause meningitis in children are from the group known as enteroviruses – for example, coxsackie, the virus behind hand, foot, and mouth disease, is an enterovirus that can lead to meningitis. Other viral infections, such as mumps, herpes simplex viruses (responsible for cold sores), and influenza can also cause meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, comes on fast and is very serious. The majority of children with bacterial meningitis recover with no long-term complications, but bacterial meningitis can cause deafness, blindness, developmental delays, speech loss, muscle problems, kidney and adrenal gland failure, seizures, and even death.

If my child has a fever, what are the chances she has meningitis?

Slim, but if you suspect it might be meningitis, have her doctor check it out right away. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1,000 adults and children in the United States come down with meningitis each year. Babies and adolescents age 16 through 21 have the highest incidence, but anyone can get it.

What are the symptoms?

That’s the tricky part, because the symptoms of meningitis aren’t always the same for everyone, and they don’t appear in any particular order. A high fever, stiff neck, and severe headache are the hallmark signs.

Other signs of meningitis include:

  • sensitivity to light
  • vomiting or nausea
  • confusion
  • sleepiness
  • no interest in eating or drinking
  • skin rash

If your baby has meningitis, you might notice some of these symptoms. Others, such as headache and confusion, are hard to decipher in a baby. Your baby might also be crying constantly and have a bulging fontanel (soft spot on his head). While it might be hard to tell if his neck is stiff, he may become more upset when you pick him up, and you might detect stiffness in his body, too.

If you have any inkling that your child may have meningitis, call his doctor right away. Early treatment is crucial.

If my baby has meningitis, how do I know how serious it is?

Only a doctor can tell you how serious it is, as the symptoms for viral and bacterial meningitis are very similar. If the doctor suspects meningitis, he’ll do a lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap. In some instances, a doctor will order a CT scan before doing a lumbar puncture, to rule out other problems and to make certain that it’s safe to do the lumbar puncture.

This isn’t a fun test, but it’s usually more uncomfortable than it is painful. Your child will have to lie on her side in a fetal position, knees bent and pulled up, and be held still for the test. The doctor may apply a surface anesthetic to reduce any discomfort. Then he’ll insert a small, hollow needle in the space between the vertebrae to draw out a little spinal fluid for testing. (If you had an epidural during labor, you know the spot.) The procedure takes about 5 to 10 minutes.

Blood and urine samples will also be taken.

The doctor will probably have some information in about an hour or two, after the first analysis of the spinal fluid. Further analysis will determine with greater certainty whether your child has meningitis and if so, whether it’s caused by a virus or a bacteria (and which bacteria). The full report may not be ready for 72 hours, but there’s usually preliminary news in 24 to 48 hours.

If your child’s very sick, the doctor probably won’t wait for test results. He’ll start treatment immediately and continue unless the tests show no sign of bacteria, which means that if it’s meningitis, it’s most likely caused by a virus.

What’s the treatment for viral meningitis?

If it’s viral meningitis, your child’s immune system is probably strong enough to take care of it. Often no treatment is needed, though sometimes the doctor will prescribe medication, particularly if your baby’s a newborn. You can soothe your child as you would if he had the flu – with rest, plenty of liquids, medicine for pain relief and fever, and pampering.

In some cases your child will need to stay in the hospital a few days for close monitoring of his symptoms, especially if he’s very young.

What’s the treatment for bacterial meningitis?

To eliminate the bacteria, doctors flood the bloodstream with strong antibiotics. Babies often have to spend up to two weeks in the hospital connected to an IV.

This can be arduous, but it cures the disease about 85 percent of the time, as long as the illness is diagnosed within the first day or so that symptoms appear. That’s why calling the doctor immediately if you suspect meningitis is so important.

How do children get meningitis?

There’s no simple explanation of why one child gets meningitis while another doesn’t. The organisms that cause bacterial meningitis live in the mouth and throat of many healthy children and adults without causing any problems. Little ones with abnormal immune systems, sickle-cell disease, or serious head injuries are at greater risk, but anyone can contract the disease.

Some babies contract a particularly virulent strain of meningitis during birth if the mother is infected with group B strep bacteria. That’s why pregnant women are tested for this bug. If Mom tests positive for GBS, she’ll be given antibiotics prior to delivery.

The good news is that meningitis is usually not nearly as contagious as the flu. If your child has meningitis, only those in very close contact with her need to be especially cautious: Avoid kissing her and sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses with her, for example. Make sure all household members wash their hands frequently.

If your child has bacterial meningitis, the doctor may suggest that family members take a course of antibiotics as a preventive measure.

Is it preventable?
Not 100 percent. The most important thing you can do is have your child vaccinated. Vaccines for polio, measles, mumps, varicella (chicken pox), and influenza all help protect against viral forms of meningitis.

In addition, make sure he’s vaccinated against the once-common culprit Haemophilus influenzae type B, or Hib (the vaccine is usually given at 2, 4, and 6 months, with another dose between 12 and 18 months). This shot, which has been part of the standard immunization schedule in the United States since 1987, has sharply reduced the incidence of childhood meningitis.

Another vaccine, called the meningococcal vaccine, is now also routinely given to ward off one of today’s most common and deadly forms of meningitis, caused by Pneumococcus bacteria.

Good hygiene can help prevent the spread of some types of meningitis:

  • Wash your hands well and often – especially after using the toilet, changing diapers, and before preparing food or eating, and make sure your child washes his hands (or do it for him).
  • Cover your mouth when you cough. Use a tissue or cough into your upper arm. When he’s old enough, teach your child to do the same.
  • Clean surfaces that may be contaminated, such as remote controls, doorknobs, and toys. You can purchase disinfectant (including natural disinfectants), or you can make your own using a mixture of 1/4 cup of bleach and 1 gallon of water.
  • Avoid sharing beverages, eating utensils, toothbrushes, and other personal items.
  • If you have rodents in your home, take steps to eliminate them and clean up areas that have been infested. They can transmit a viral meningitis known as lymphocytic choriomeningitis, or LCM. To clean, wear rubber gloves and use a solution of 1 1/2 cups of bleach with 1 gallon of water. For more extensive directions, see the CDC’s information on lymphocytic choriomeningitis.
  • Avoid being bitten by insects that transmit diseases (such as West Nile virus).

Sources used in the writing of the article about meningitis in babies

Note: This article was 1st time published on, medically reviewed by Dawn Rosenberg, M.D., pediatrician.

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