Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, which is the tissue that surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord. It’s most commonly caused by viral or bacterial infections. Meningitis is a serious condition that, left untreated, can be fatal in a short period of time and can cause life-altering complications in survivors.
How can I recognise meningitis in babies?
- Tense soft spot at the top of the head (a bulging fontanelle)
- Frequent crying (which may be unusual compared to their normal cry)
- High temperature (fever) with cold hands and feet
- Drowsiness – may be difficult to wake up
- Breathing quickly, or difficulty breathing
- Don’t like being held
- Refusing to feed
- Red blotchy rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is pressed against it (sign of septicaemia)
- Body is floppy
- Body going stiff with jerky movements
- Grunting sounds
Look out for the key symptoms listed above – meningitis can be difficult to spot, especially in babies and younger children who can’t explain what’s wrong, and because the symptoms can be similar to other illnesses. Parents know their children best - if you are worried, go with your instincts. If you notice any of these symptoms, call 999 or go to hospital immediately, as meningitis can cause serious health issues if it’s not treated quickly.
Don’t rely on the “tumbler test” – the red rash that doesn’t fade when a clear glass or tumbler is pressed against it (the tumbler test) is a sign of septicaemia, which when bacteria infect the blood and can cause serious complications. The red rash is a later symptom of bacterial meningitis, and in lots of cases of meningitis the rash will not appear at all – so look out for the symptoms above, rather than waiting for a rash to appear.
How do babies get meningitis?
Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to meningitis – babies don’t have fully developed immune systems, which means that they lack the antibodies needed to effectively fight off many infections. Because of this, babies are more at risk of getting sick and developing complications as a result of these infections.
Viral infections are the most common cause of meningitis – viral meningitis is usually quite mild, and is unlikely to lead to any serious health complications. There are thousands of cases of viral meningitis every year in the UK, and most patients will fully recover without needing any treatment.
Viral meningitis in babies can be caused by:
- Enteroviruses (a type of virus that is typically transmitted in the gut)
- The flu
- Herpes (a mother with active herpes may transmit the virus to their baby during childbirth)
- Chickenpox (herpes-zoster virus)
Bacterial meningitis is rarer, but more serious – bacterial meningitis is fatal in 70% of cases if left untreated, and in up to 10% of cases even if the baby did receive treatment. Bacterial meningitis can also cause a number of serious after-effects in 20% of survivors, such as permanent brain damage or loss of limb.
Bacterial meningitis in babies can be caused by:
- Meningococci (types of meningitis bacteria - such as bacteria that causes meningitis B)
- “Hib” (haemophilus influenzae)
- Pneumococci (types of bacteria that can cause pneumonia)
- “GBS” - Group B Streptococcus (this bacteria can be transmitted to a baby during labour and delivery)
- Listeria (a type of bacteria that can be caught from certain foods and farm animals)
What are the long-term effects of meningitis in babies?
Meningitis can cause a number of life-altering complications in survivors – this is especially true of bacterial meningitis, which is estimated to cause after-effects in 20% of survivors.
After-effects of meningitis can include:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty concentrating
- Behavioural changes
- Loss of coordination and balance
- Recurring headaches or migraines
- Hearing problems, including partial to total deafness
- Sight problems, including partial to total blindness
- Speech problems
Septicaemia can be complication of bacterial meningitis – bacteria can get into the bloodstream and damage blood vessels, which is known as septicaemia. This can cause further complications by reducing the flow of oxygen to major organs, such as the heart, brain, and skin.
After-effects of septicaemia can include:
- Loss of limb, due to amputation
- Permanent scarring of skin
- Joint stiffness/arthritis
- Kidney damage
- Lung damage
How is meningitis in babies treated?
All suspected cases of meningitis require urgent medical attention – meningitis, especially bacterial meningitis, is a life-threatening condition that can have life-altering complications in survivors. Because of this, if you suspect meningitis you should take your baby to hospital as soon as possible.
Bacterial meningitis is treated in hospital – because bacterial meningitis is such a serious condition, your baby will need to stay in hospital to receive emergency treatment. Antibiotics will be given directly into the vein to treat the bacterial infection, and corticosteroids may be given alongside them to reduce the inflammation to reduce the likelihood of complications. Fluids may also be needed which would be given directly into the vein to prevent dehydration, and an oxygen mask may be recommended too. Treatment in hospital normally takes a few days, though in more severe cases may take over a week.
Once doctors have confirmed its viral meningitis, this normally gets better on its own – the symptoms of viral meningitis are usually more mild, and may not require treatment in hospital. Most cases of viral meningitis can be recovered from at home with rest, water, and painkillers if necessary. Remember to ask a doctor or pharmacist before giving your baby any over-the-counter medication. Generally, you can expect your baby to recover from viral meningitis in 7 to 10 days.
How do I protect my baby against meningitis?
There are vaccines that can prevent some types of meningitis – a number of vaccinations designed to protect against meningitis are routinely offered to all babies by the NHS in the national vaccination schedule. Your baby can also get vaccinated against certain types of meningitis with Superdrug Health Clinics. You can find more information about which vaccinations protect against meningitis here.
Keep clean and hygienic – babies can easily get infected by viruses or bacteria if precautions are not taken, which can cause them to get sick. You can reduce your baby’s exposure to viruses and bacteria if you:
- Don’t share eating utensils with babies, as you could be carrying bacteria or viruses that are harmless to you but could cause health issues in a baby
- Keep surfaces clean, as viruses and bacteria can contaminate them. For example, the flu virus can survive on surfaces for 24 hours
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially before feeding
Boost your baby’s immune system – babies are more likely to get sick because their immune systems haven’t had the time to develop effective defences against infections. A few ways to help your baby’s immune system fight off infections are:
- If your baby is old enough to start trying solids, try to include plenty of fruit and veg in their diet
- Rest is really important to keeping the body healthy, so trying to ensure that your baby is getting enough sleep will help them fight off infections
- Avoid smoking around babies, as even secondhand smoke can weaken their immune system and cause other health complications