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What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation (swelling) of the membranes that cover the brain and the spinal cord. These membranes are called the meninges.

What causes meningitis?

Meningitis is usually the result of a viral or bacterial infection. These viruses and bacteria travel through the blood stream to infect the meninges. Meningitis can also be a complication of a severe sinus infection, a severe ear infection, or a surgical procedure that involves the brain or spinal cord.

What are some of the symptoms?

  • Fever 
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Rash
  • Seizures 
  • Chills
  • Lethargy
  • Poor appetite
  • Shock
  • Bulging "soft spot" in babies

Note that these may also be symptoms of other illnesses. Your child may only have some of the symptoms listed. For example, in newborn infants, the only sign of meningitis may be a fever.

How is meningitis diagnosed?

Meningitis is diagnosed by examining the fluid around the brain and spinal cord. This fluid is called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). To obtain CSF, a doctor performs a lumbar puncture (spinal tap). During the lumbar puncture, a small needle is put into the lower back to drain CSF into sterile tubes. If a child has meningitis, white blood cells can be seen in the CSF under a microscope.

The CSF is sent to the hospital laboratory to try to grow bacteria that might be present. This allows the doctor to pick the correct antibiotics to kill the bacteria. If bacteria are present, they may take several days to grow. The doctor may also perform other tests on CSF, blood, urine and stool to identify bacteria or viruses. Sometimes the exact cause of meningitis is not found.

How is meningitis treated?

In most cases of viral meningitis the child’s own immune system cures the infection. Medicines may be given to make children more comfortable. Some children with viral meningitis stay in the hospital for a day or two to control pain and prevent dehydration.

Bacterial meningitis is treated with IV antibiotics. Other medicines may be needed as well. Treatment can last for as few as 5 days to as many as 21 days or even longer. The length of treatment depends on which bacteria are grown in the CSF. Children with bacterial meningitis typically remain in the hospital until their treatment has been completed. Some children with bacterial meningitis may need to be cared for in the intensive care unit.


While hospitalized, children with meningitis may require special isolation precautions. For example, nurses and doctors may wear gowns and masks while caring for patients with meningitis. The purpose of isolation is to help prevent the spread of certain viruses or bacteria that caused the meningitis to other patients, visitors, doctors and hospital staff. Isolation can usually be stopped after 24 hours of treatment with antibiotics.

Family Precautions

Some kinds of bacteria that cause meningitis spread easily to other people. If a child’s lab samples grow one of these kinds of bacteria, family members and others may be given antibiotics to prevent illness. It is important that all family members and visitors wash their hands before and after visiting patients in the hospital.

How will this affect my child’s health in the future?

Most children with viral meningitis recover completely.

Bacterial meningitis is a serious and sometimes deadly illness. Early and aggressive treatment usually results in complete recovery; however, hearing loss or other neurologic problems may result even with the best medicalcare. Children with bacterial meningitis typically receive a hearing test before leaving the hospital. Prognosis and medical follow up is determined on a case by case basis.

Can meningitis be prevented?

Routine childhood vaccinations can prevent certain kinds of bacterial meningitis.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your child's physician. The content provided on this page is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your child's physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.

Reviewed: 10/2011

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