Meningitis in Infants

Quick Answer

Meningitis is an infection of the three membranes that line the brain and spinal cord. Babies under 2 years old are at the highest risk, but meningitis can affect people of any age. If it is not treated properly, meningitis in infants can lead to permanent brain damage or even death.

What Is Infant Meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the three membranes lining the brain and spinal cord. It can occur when an infection that is already in another part of the body travels through the bloodstream to the meninges.

Approximately 3,000 people in the United States (or one in 100,000) are diagnosed with bacterial meningitis each year.

Meningitis causes swelling and can be life-threatening if it is not detected and properly treated. For this reason, it is very important to get your child routine vaccinations, know the signs of infection, and seek medical care immediately if symptoms appear.

Types of Meningitis in Infants

There are 3 main types of infant meningitis:

  1. Viral meningitis: Viral infections have historically been the most common cause of meningitis, causing flu-like symptoms that usually go away on their own within ten days.
  2. Bacterial meningitis: Bacterial meningitis in infants can be life-threatening. Vaccines to prevent bacterial meningitis have made this type less common.
  3. Fungal meningitis: While rare, fungal meningitis in infants can occur.

In general, bacterial and fungal meningitis in infants are more dangerous than viral meningitis.

Viral Meningitis

Children under 5 years old are at a higher risk of developing viral meningitis. Meningitis in infants less than 1 month of age is more likely to cause a severe infection.

Viruses that tend to cause milder cases of viral meningitis include:

  • Non-polio enteroviruses: These are the most common causes of viral meningitis and include colds.
  • Influenza: This is the virus that causes the flu.
  • Measles and mumps viruses: Although they are rare, these are very contagious.

Viruses that can cause very severe viral meningitis include:

  • Varicella: This is the virus that causes chickenpox.
  • Herpes simplex virus: Babies can get it from their mothers in the womb or during birth.
  • West Nile virus: This virus is transmitted by being bitten by infected mosquitoes.

Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis in infants is most often caused by an infection called group B strep (GBS). Expectant mothers with GBS can pass the infection to their babies during the birthing process.

Other infections that can lead to bacterial meningitis include:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae: This is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in infants under 2 years and is usually spread through breathing in air that was sneezed or coughed into by an infected person.
  • Neisseria meningitidis: This is the second most common bacteria to cause meningitis in infants, usually affecting babies less than 1 year old.
  • Gram-negative bacilli: This includes bacteria such as E. coli, which can spread from a mother to her baby during birth.
  • Listeria monocytogenes: This is usually passed to a baby in the womb, but it can also happen during delivery.
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib): This is a bacteria that usually does not make people sick, although they can pass it to others, including babies who are in close contact with an infected carrier for a couple days.

Bacterial meningitis may cause permanent brain damage, including hearing loss, mental impairment, or even death.

Fungal Meningitis

Fungus enters the body by breathing it in through the air. Fungal meningitis in infants is usually contracted in the hospital after birth, however, it is very rare and tends to only affect people with weak immune systems. The types of fungus that can cause meningitis can be found in soil and in bird and bat droppings.

The fungus called Candida can cause blood infections in premature babies.

Causes of Meningitis in Infants

Meningitis in infants is caused when a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection in another part of the body travels to the brain and spinal cord through the bloodstream. While meningitis can develop in people of any age, babies under 2 years old have the highest risk of getting it. Additionally, meningitis in infants happens more in babies with weakened immune systems.

Out of the three main types of meningitis in infants, viral meningitis tends to be the most common. Although they are less common, bacterial and fungal meningitis in infants can pose life-threatening risk.

If treatment for meningitis is delayed, it can cause serious brain damage and even death. Sadly, some of these tragic cases happen because medical professionals did not follow the standard of care for diagnosing and treating sick newborns. In cases of a missed or even delayed diagnosis, medical negligence could be the cause.

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Symptoms of Meningitis in Infants

The symptoms of meningitis in infants depend on the primary source of the infection. Bacterial meningitis in infants usually starts with a fever. Since this is common to many other medical conditions, bacterial meningitis in infants can be difficult to diagnose at first.

Although they can vary, other symptoms of infant meningitis include:

  • Arching back
  • Bulging in the soft spots on the head
  • Decreased energy
  • High-pitched or excessive crying
  • Irritability, changed behavior
  • Jaundice (yellow tint in skin)
  • Neck and body stiffness
  • Poor feeding
  • Purple-red splotchy rash
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Severe headaches
  • Sleeping more than normal and difficulty waking up
  • Vomiting

In some cases, infants with meningitis may have seizures, which are often due to high fever, rather than being caused by the meningitis itself.

Symptoms may begin to appear several days after an infant has a cold, runny nose, diarrhea, or vomiting. However, sometimes symptoms occur seemingly out of nowhere and progress very rapidly, making every second in getting your baby treatment critical.

Due to the seriousness of meningitis in infants and the urgency of getting them treatment right away, it is advisable to take action right away rather than watching and waiting for things to worsen or improve. If meningitis in infants is suspected, a doctor should be called immediately.

Diagnosing Meningitis in Infants

Diagnosing infant meningitis involves determining what organism is causing the infection. Understanding the root cause is necessary to determine how to treat each individual case.

Several testing methods can diagnose meningitis in infants:

  • Blood tests: This is done by analyzing blood samples in a lab to look for signs of infection.
  • Blood cultures: This involves spreading blood samples onto special plates that bacteria, viruses, or fungus can easily grow on. If anything grows on the plates, it is likely that it’s what’s causing the meningitis.
  • Lumbar puncture: Also called a spinal tap, this involves removing a sample of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. This fluid is checked for any organisms that grow.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: This test uses X-rays and a computer to see inside the body. It can be used to diagnose meningitis by checking for any abscesses in a baby’s head.

Complications from Meningitis in Infants

Bacterial meningitis in infants tends to be the most severe of the three types and may lead to neurological complications that last over the long-term. Meningitis in infants can also cause complications in the heart, kidneys, and adrenal glands.

Delayed treatment may lead to various health issues, including:

  • Blindness
  • Brain damage
  • Deafness
  • Seizures
  • Hydrocephalus (fluid around the brain)
  • Learning difficulties
  • Death

It’s critical that any suspected case of infant meningitis be given immediate medical attention.

Treatment Options for Infant Meningitis

Meningitis in infants can be serious and even life-threatening, however, if diagnosed and treated early, infants almost always fully recover.

The treatments your baby may get depend on the cause of their infection. For this reason, take your baby to the doctor as soon as you suspect meningitis. Treatment must be started right away for the best possible outcome.

Viral Meningitis Treatment

Viral meningitis in infants is often mild. In many cases, babies who have it may get better within 10 days on their own without any treatment. Symptoms may be relieved through rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain medicine.

That said, viral meningitis caused by varicella, herpes simplex, and West Nile virus can be very serious. These infections may require hospitalization and antiviral medication given intravenously (IV).

Bacterial Meningitis Treatment

Bacterial meningitis in infants is treated with antibiotics. This is often done through an IV and requires a hospital stay.

Fungal Meningitis Treatment

Fungal meningitis in infants is treated with IV antifungal medication. Hospital stays can last more than a month because fungal infections are difficult to get rid of.

Compensation for Meningitis in Infants Related to Medical Negligence

Every single minute counts for detecting and treating meningitis in infants. Misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis of meningitis can cause catastrophic and lifelong injury, including brain damage and even death.

If your baby suffers from long-term complications related to meningitis, medical negligence or malpractice may be to blame. In these cases, financial compensation may be available to you.

To learn whether you may qualify for compensation, get a free legal case review today.

Birth Injury Support Team

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

View 7 Sources
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