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Learning About Bacterial Meningitis in Children

The brain, normal and with inflammation

What is bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis (say "meh-nun-JY-tus") is an infection of the tissues that surround the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms usually develop suddenly and last for 2 to 3 weeks. A baby may be cranky, cry when moved, and arch his or her back. A young child may have a severe headache and refuse to eat. The symptoms can quickly get worse, and more serious symptoms can develop. The infection may involve many different parts of the body.

Your child will be in the hospital for testing and treatment.

Doctors use a lumbar puncture to test for this disease. This test is also called a spinal tap. A sample of fluid is removed from around the spine. The fluid is then tested to see if it contains bacteria that cause the illness. It may take a few days to get the results, and your child may get treatment even before the results are known.

The doctor may also order other tests, such as blood tests, a CT scan, or an MRI.

Bacterial meningitis can be serious. It can injure your child's brain and can be life-threatening. Your child may need special care, such as being in the intensive care unit (ICU). This may worry you. But the hospital staff understands this. They will explain what happens and will answer your questions.

How is it treated?

Treatment takes place in the hospital. Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotics to treat infection.
  • Medicines to treat other symptoms, such as fever and muscle aches, pressure on the brain, and seizures, if they occur.
  • Help with breathing. Your child may have a tube down the throat that is attached to a machine (ventilator).
  • Fluids or nutrition through a vein (IV).
  • Supportive care. Your child will be watched carefully to help prevent serious problems such as hearing loss, seizures, and brain damage.

What can you expect?

How long it takes your child to get better depends on how bad the illness is. It can take from just a couple of weeks to many months.

Your child may have changes in how he or she thinks or concentrates. These symptoms get better over time in most children. But some children have lasting effects, such as learning disabilities.

Your child will need follow-up care. The doctor will check for long-term problems such as hearing loss. Your child may have tests to see how well he or she is able to concentrate.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

Where can you learn more?

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