Bacterial Meningitis in Children

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection that causes inflammation of the three thin layers of tissue, known as meninges, which cover the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis may be caused by a virus or by bacteria.

In general, bacterial meningitis is more dangerous than viral meningitis. Bacterial meningitis may cause permanent damage, including hearing loss, mental retardation or even death. Approximately 3,000 people in the U.S. or one in 100,000 are diagnosed with bacterial meningitis each year.

Typical treatment includes hospitalization and antibiotics.

What is the difference between bacterial meningitis and viral meningitis?

Symptoms:

  • Viral meningitis - Fever, headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, drowsiness, confusion.
  • Bacterial meningitis - High fever, severe headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, drowsiness, confusion. A rash, nausea, vomiting, and sore throat can also occur.

Effects:

  • Viral meningitis - Temporary, flu-like symptoms, headache, and stiff neck.
  • Bacterial meningitis - Possibility of varying degrees of brain damage, including hearing loss and mental retardation. Can be fatal if not treated in time.

Severity:

  • Viral meningitis - Goes away on its own usually within three to 10 days.
  • Bacterial meningitis - Life-threatening. Medical treatment is needed immediately.

Treatment:

  • Viral meningitis - Bed rest, Tylenol.
  • Bacterial meningitis - Hospitalization and antibiotics.

How common is bacterial meningitis?

Approximately 3,000 people in the United States — or one in 100,000 — are diagnosed with bacterial meningitis each year, most of them infants, children, college students and the elderly. Incidences of bacterial meningitis usually peak in the winter or early spring. People who show symptoms in the summer time are more likely to have viral meningitis rather than bacterial meningitis.

Preventing bacterial meningitis

The most common cause of bacterial meningitis in children, Haemophilus influenzae b (Hib), has been almost eliminated due to a vaccine that was developed at Boston Children's Hospital in 1990.

  • Before then, approximately 10,000 children were diagnosed with meningitis each year, and 5 percent of them did not survive.
  • The Hib immunization is now a routine childhood vaccination that prevents hundreds of deaths a year.

The rate of another major cause of bacterial meningitis — the pneumococcus bacteria — also has been reduced dramatically by the widespread use of Prevnar pneumococcal vaccine.

Meningococcal vaccine, specifically for meningococcus bacteria, is recommended for students entering dormitory situations in high school or college. It is effective for three to five years, however, it does not protect against all strains of meningococcus bacteria.

How we care for bacterial meningitis

Because of the fast and severe nature of bacterial meningitis, Boston Children's urges all parents to seek treatment immediately once you suspect bacterial meningitis. After admission, doctors will find the specific cause of your child's meningitis and administer treatment accordingly. The ultimate goal of quick treatment is to make sure your child recovers without any permanent damage.