Bacterial Meningitis in Children | Symptoms & Causes

What are the symptoms and warning signs of bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis usually starts with headache and fever, which are common to many illnesses, making bacterial meningitis difficult to diagnose at this stage.

  • Symptoms more specific to bacterial meningitis include severe headache, pain when bending the neck forward or a stiff neck, and sometimes sensitivity to light.
  • Later symptoms can include confusion, lethargy, or seizures.
  • Symptoms can progress rapidly, and some patients experience delirium or coma by the time they seek treatment.

In infants, the symptoms to be aware of are:

  • fever
  • irritability (fussy and crying a lot)
  • lethargy
  • high-pitched cry
  • arching back
  • crying when moved
  • a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on an infant's head)
  • seizures

For children older than 1 year, look for:

  • fever
  • neck or back pain (or stiff neck)
  • headache
  • confusion
  • sensitivity to light
  • refusing to eat
  • decreased level of consciousness
  • seizures
  • nausea and vomiting

It is important to emphasize that children may not display all of the above signs and symptoms. Watchful waiting is not advised; if you suspect meningitis, consult a doctor immediately.

What causes bacterial meningitis?

Many healthy people carry the bacteria in their mouth or throat and never get sick from it, but in rare cases, it breaks through a person's immune system and travels through the bloodstream — or sometimes through the sinuses — to the brain. The bacteria then infect the protective membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, causing dangerous swelling and inflammation that is only relieved with antibiotic treatment.

What are the risk factors for bacterial meningitis?

  • Having been in close contact with someone who has bacterial meningitis (especially when it's due to meningococcus, a type of bacteria that is more contagious than others).
  • Having a compromised immune system.
  • Having traveled to an area of the world where meningitis is widespread (consult your doctor for the recommended vaccinations before traveling overseas).

While some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious, especially meningococcus, none is transmitted as easily as the common cold or the flu. However, bacterial meningitis can be spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions, such as:

  • coughing or sneezing
  • kissing
  • sharing drinks.

If someone is in close contact with a person who has bacterial meningitis, such as a roommate, parent, sibling, daycare worker, classmate, or boyfriend or girlfriend, they are at an increased risk and should go to the doctor for antibiotics to prevent bacterial meningitis before symptoms occur.