Meningitis in children can have debilitating, if not fatal, consequences. This requires immediate medical assistance before a diagnosis. But what is meningitis? What are early meningitis symptoms in toddlers that could indicate disease? How do doctors treat meningitis?
What is Meningitis?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meningitis is a disease where the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord swell from inflammation. A bacteria or virus infecting these membranes and cerebrospinal fluid is the usual cause of the swelling.
Other causes include injuries, cancer, drugs, fungi and parasitic infections. Accurate diagnosis of the cause of meningitis is critical to effective treatment. This is because different reasons have very other treatment options.
The two most common causes of meningitis in children are bacteria and viruses. Other causes tend to be much rarer. In a general population, different people have different risks of meningitis, which differ for bacterial and viral meningitis.
Causes of Meningitis in Children
Here are some risk factors that can show whether you are at risk of bacterial meningitis in children:
- Age. Anyone can be affected by bacterial meningitis, and different bacteria affect different age groups. However, babies are more prone to getting the disease.
Does your baby seem fussy without any good reason? Perhaps there might be an underlying illness.
- Community. Infectious diseases tend to spread where the population is congested.
- Medical conditions. Certain medications and surgical procedures can be contributing factors.
- Travel. Travellers are at a higher risk of contracting meningococcal disease when going to crowded places.
Viral meningitis in children shares risk factors with bacterial meningitis.
- Age. Anyone can contract the disease regardless of age. But those less than five years of age are more likely to be at risk.
- Weakened immune system. This increases the chances of contracting the disease. Certain diseases, medications (such as chemotherapy), and recent organ or bone marrow transplants can cause the immune system to weaken.
Babies less than one-month-old and people with compromised immune systems are likelier to be more severely affected by the illness.
Why Are Children at Risk of Meningitis?
Children are vulnerable to meningitis because their immune systems have not learned how to tackle pathogens properly. Not taking vaccinations as scheduled massively escalates the risk of getting ill from meningitis. In addition, some people might be genetically vulnerable to contracting the disease.
It is important to note that bacterial and viral meningitis are VERY different.
Bacterial Meningitis vs Viral Meningitis
Bacterial infections, while uncommon, can be life-threatening. Viral infections, in comparison, are very common, but much less serious.
According to the National University Hospital (NUH), most children can recover if viral meningitis has been treated. However, non-specific symptoms like malaise, dizziness and headaches can persist for weeks after successful treatment.
Other long-term effects after recovery include hearing impairment and behavioural and learning issues. Thankfully, such effects are rare.
Meanwhile, bacterial meningitis in children can be fatal. Bacteria can cause septicemic shock, otherwise known as blood poisoning. This shock occurs because bacteria release toxins into the bloodstream. The resulting overwhelming immune response against these toxins damages blood vessels, leading to a red, spotty rash.
If a rash is much, much worse than this, please consult a doctor as soon as possible.
Children even die due to brain swelling. This happens when excessive pressure is exerted on critical parts of the brainstem. Bacterial meningitis causes about 5% to 20% of deaths, depending on how dangerous the pathogen is. Other common complications that may arise are electrolyte abnormalities and even seizures.
Now that you’re aware of these dangers, you might worry about the next most important part…
Is Meningitis Contagious?
Different microorganisms spread in a variety of ways. In general, the bacteria or virus causing meningitis spreads from person to person by saliva. This means that coughing, sneezing, kissing or sharing cups and cutlery are risky activities. Certain pathogens can even spread through contaminated food.
Here are a few examples of how the bacteria is spread:
- Mothers infected with group B Streptococcus and Escherichia coli can give the bacteria to their babies during labour or during birth.
- Haemophilus influenza B and Streptococcus pneumoniae are spread by air when people cough or sneeze.
- Neisseria meningitidis travels by air or saliva. This typically happens by coughing, kissing or proximity (e.g. living under the same roof).
An Expert’s Opinion on the Bacteria Contagion
Arthur Lavin, a paediatrician with 25 years of experience and studied at Harvard, assures parents that the infection is extremely rare. Consider that the bacteria that cause meningitis call our noses and throats home. Yet, in many cases, carriers do not get sick, nor do those infected. The bacteria may spread between people, but it rarely develops into full-blown meningitis.
The same goes for the viruses responsible for meningitis. You would probably have been exposed to these viruses before the person even got sick. Furthermore, the virus will likely not develop into meningitis — this is a rare occurrence. It is much more likely that the virus will cause other milder diseases, such as stomach flu and fever.
Understanding the severity of this disease and its ability to spread are important first steps to expecting what’s next. The next step is critical — it can mean the difference between life and death.
What Is the First Sign of Meningitis in Toddlers
A good thing about meningitis in children is that it has some very distinguishable features, even if children are vulnerable to the disease.
This is crucial to identify the strain of the disease and provide early treatment before it’s too late for better recovery. Thus, parents, you must know how to identify meningitis.
Here are eight early meningitis symptoms in toddlers that parents need to watch out for.
Symptom 1: Abrupt Fever
Parents must look for symptoms such as shivering and constant complaints of cold hands and feet. Sick people also tend to experience a rapid rise in body temperature. However, parents note that fever is a symptom of many other diseases.
Symptom 2: Rigid Occipital Muscles
The occipital muscle is a muscle group that covers the skull. Children who suffer from meningitis usually lie in an easily recognisable position: on their sides, heads bent back, and legs bent inwards. More often than not, these children are also unable to straighten their necks.
Symptom 3: Inability to Unbend Legs
Another telltale early sign of meningitis in toddlers is the Brudziński neck sign. This abnormal position is characterised by children bending their heads close to their chests. Parents should be suspicious if the legs simultaneously bend at the knees when their heads are close to the chest but are difficult to straighten.
Kernig’s sign, a symptom of the inability to completely extend one’s leg when lifted perpendicular to the ground, should also be a red flag to parents.
Symptom 4: Fear and Sensitivity To Bright Light
Being afraid of bright light is also another key symptom of meningitis. Dazzling light sources worsen an unbearable headache, furthered by eyes watering and increased nausea.
Symptom 5: ‘Unbearable’ Headaches
Headaches caused by meningitis have been described as “unendurable.” They are so painful that the pain may radiate towards the neck, but children won’t notice any neck pains due to the sheer agony from the headache.
Symptom 6: Double Vision
People suffering from meningitis are unable to focus their eyesight. Their surroundings aren’t clear and may appear as double vision.
Symptom 7: Gut Discomfort and Appetite Loss
Children suffering from meningitis usually lose their appetite, which may manifest as refusing to eat. One of the many reasons this happens is because of symptoms such as constant nausea, abdominal pain and vomiting.
Symptom 8: Skin Rashes
Skin rashes may also be a possible sign of meningitis. Parents can use the test outlined below to identify whether a rash is connected to meningitis or not.
Firstly, check the entire body. Locate tiny red or brown pin-prick marks, which can change into larger red or purple blotches and blood blisters. If the skin is too dark to see such a rash, parents can also check the lighter areas like the palms of hands or the soles of feet.
Take a transparent glass and apply it to the rash. Press the glass firmly on the skin affected by the rash until it turns pale. Spots that turn pale with the skin show that the child is not suffering from meningitis. Parents should immediately seek medical help if they notice that the rash does not fade.
Other Important Meningitis Symptoms in Children:
- Appearing to be confused or delirious
- Limb/ joint/muscle pain that may accompany diarrhoea or stomach pain
- Appearing irritable when picked up, with a high-pitched or moaning cry
- Having a stiff body with jerky movements, or else floppy and lifeless
- Pale or mottled skin
- Sleepiness, or difficulty in waking up
- A soft part of the skull appears swollen (or bulging fontanel) on your newborn’s head.
* Note that fever is not a common symptom of meningitis in babies younger than three months.
With meningitis, the earlier you identify the disease, the better your chances of recovery. This is because even if treatment is successful, children may still suffer from disabilities many years into the future.
Delayed Treatment and Post-Recovery Consequences
Early treatment is necessary to avoid long-term consequences. Delaying treatment leads to death with septicaemia, and even if prevented, debilitating consequences still ensure post-recovery. The Meningitis Research Foundation lists the following issues that meningitis survivors may suffer from:
- Memory loss, reduced focus, difficulty retaining information
- Coordination issues
- Deafness, hearing problems, tinnitus, dizziness and loss of balance
- Weakness, paralysis, spasms
- Speech problems
- Loss of sight
Septicaemia can also cause:
- Memory loss, reduced focus, difficulty retaining information
- Coordination issues
- Arthritis or joint stiffness
- Scarring of the skin
- Kidney and lung damage
Numerous studies have shown that delaying treatment leads to unfavourable outcomes. One study in Papua New Guinea found that eight of 80 children died after being discharged. The survivors developed major neurological issues and multiple severe complications — leading to severe long-term disability.
Numerous other studies also prove that surviving meningitis can result in permanent damage, hearing impairment, and a varying range of complications among a large group of children.
Symptoms of Meningitis in Children That Needs URGENT Medical Attention
Parents, by now, we hope you understand the gravity of the situation when we say meningitis in children is serious. Again, meningitis is a dangerous, possibly fatal, disease. It can still be difficult to diagnose even after knowing the symptoms. This is because:
- Different people show different symptoms, which can appear in any order.
- Septicemia may occur when meningitis is present or not.
- The rash, a dangerous sign of septicaemia, doesn’t always appear. But that doesn’t mean you should wait for it too.
You know your child best. Are they acting a bit unusual? Check frequently, trust your instincts and act fast if you see any of these early meningitis symptoms in toddlers. Don’t delay — they can get ill very quickly. Call for an ambulance or consult a doctor IMMEDIATELY. Hospitalisation is often necessary as meningitis can only be treated effectively in the inpatient department.
Preventing Meningitis in Children
Vaccination shots are one of the first lines of defence you can take against meningitis.
It is best to have different approaches to prevent meningitis in children since it has so many possible causes. Here, we recommend three different things parents can do: vaccinate their children, keep an eye out for symptoms, and teach them good hygiene practices at home.
Dr Thoon Koh Cheng, Head and Senior Consultant at the Infectious Disease Service, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) explains why adhering to these practices is important. He explains that vaccines effectively stop bacterial and viral meningitis but aren’t foolproof. Getting an infection is still possible, but the risk is much less than not being vaccinated.
“It’s also important to have a high personal level of hygiene to prevent infections in general,” says Dr Thoon, hinting that we can’t completely rely on vaccines only.
The Ministry of Health in Singapore states that vaccines are available for Groups A, C, Y and W-135 meningococcal proteins, with immunity lasting three to five years after the shot.
In children, follow-up injections are not required because young children don’t mount a good immune response, and any additional immunity is also only temporary.
Although not compulsory, we encourage parents to consult their paediatrician to get advice on whether to vaccinate their children or not. People who travel, in particular, should get these jabs. This is especially helpful if they enter places where the disease is rife, such as Africa, South America, and the Middle and Far East. Do get your vaccination at least a week before travelling.
Know the symptoms and red flags so you can immediately get the patients’ or potential patients’ imminent treatment. Always keep a sharp eye out for family members and other people for early signs of illness, especially fever, and do not hesitate to call emergency services should you suspect meningitis.
The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne encourages children to avoid cigarette smoke, increasing the risk of contracting meningitis.
Practising good hygiene will minimise the risk of contracting pathogens, reducing the disease. Teach your children to:
- thoroughly scrub their hands on a routine basis
- never share anything that is used for eating or drinking, like bottles, cups or cutlery
- close their mouth should they cough or sneeze, and never use their elbow to cover these coughs
- dispose of tissues in the trash can immediately after using them and wash their hands afterwards
Remember, parents, prevention is always better than a cure. Meningitis is relentlessly aggressive and unforgiving, and it progresses very quickly.
“Once damage sets in, treatment may no longer be effective. Or it can only save what has not been damaged,” says Dr Thoon.
Please get your kids vaccinated, get educated, and be hygienic. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
You’ve done all you can to prevent and know more about meningitis. In the case that it does happen, it’s also good to know how your children are going to be treated.
What Can I Expect If My Child Gets Diagnosed with Meningitis?
Physical Check-Up & Pre-treatment
The doctor will examine various factors when your child enters the emergency room. These include body temperature, pulse, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels. The doctor will also check for breathing, circulation, and any changes in the child’s mental condition. He or she will also examine if there is a centralised source of infection.
You may also notice that your doctor might:
- fit your child with an intravenous (IV) drip. The IV drip is important because it helps to collect blood, provide fluids, and preserve stable blood pressure.
- provide antibiotics before a spinal tap if the doctor thinks bacteria is causing the disease. This is essential in prolonging the child’s life, as bacterial meningitis can quickly become fatal.
Signs that indicate meningitis may prompt your doctor to conduct more tests on your child, including:
- A lumbar puncture, otherwise known as a spinal tap. This procedure does not endanger the child and is currently the only way to diagnose meningitis.
- Urine tests. This is done to check if their urinary tract has been infected.
- A chest X-Ray to examine whether the lungs are infected or not.
- A CT scan is occasionally needed if more serious symptoms like brain abscesses, tumours, or increased brain pressure present themselves or are likely symptoms.
Treatment & Managing Secondary Infections
In cases of bacterial meningitis, the doctor will usually prescribe antibiotics via an IV drip to improve the child’s condition before diagnosis, especially if there is blood poisoning. These antibiotics will be based on bacteria which other children suffer from when they have meningitis and what kind of antibiotic resistance profiles are known in the surrounding area.
Once doctors understand what kind of bacteria is causing meningitis and what antibiotics they are not resistant to, they will modify the treatment plan accordingly.
Also, if your child is allergic to these antibiotics, doctors will prescribe a suitable alternative so that these antibiotics won’t trigger an unwanted reaction.
In serious cases, your doctor may also give steroids to reduce the damage caused by the disease. The buildup of fluid can lead to intracranial pressure due to too much fluid being retained in the head.
You might see doctors or medical professionals nursing the child in a head-up position of 20–30° in a quiet environment. This is done to lower intracranial pressure and may include intubation and sedation if it complements the current treatment plan.
Unlike bacterial meningitis, viral infections are much less serious. No medication is needed. Viral meningitis can be treated at home and will likely clear itself in two weeks with enough rest. Painkillers and other medicines can be prescribed to ease symptoms if the pain becomes unbearable.
Although antibiotics don’t kill viruses, it is still normally injected where meningitis is suspected of delaying the progression of the disease until a non-bacterial cause is confirmed.
Meningitis: After the Treatment
Once your child has been discharged, your doctor may request a follow-up visit within 24 hours. This may be to assess his or her condition and discuss how to cope with the post-recovery symptoms or disabilities if any. Do note that if meningitis occurs again, the same emergency services and hospitalisation will be needed.
We at theAsianparent hope that this article about early meningitis symptoms in toddlers has been helpful. Remember, a very ill person needs medical help even if there are only a few spots, a rash or not. Meningitis or septicaemia is like a ticking time bomb — a literal race against time. Any help can make all the difference.
This article has been republished with permission from theAsianparent Indonesia and was translated and rewritten by Kevin Wijaya Oey.
Updates from Pheona Ilagan
MeningitisNow.org, Menginitis Research Foundation, emedicine health, MOH, NUH, CDC, Singhealth, Raffles Hospital (Umrah, Vaccine schedule), KK Childrens Hospital (Travel tips, vaccine schedule), Health Xchange, Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, Journal 1, Journal of Tropical Paediatrics, BMJ Journals, Meningitis Centre Australia
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