Meningitis is an infection that causes inflammation of the meninges (the thin lining of the brain and spinal cord). It can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. It is a fairly common disease and almost all cases occur as single, isolated events. Outbreaks are rare.
Types of meningitis
Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis. Most cases are mild and children usually make a full recovery although some may be hospitalised for a short time. On very rare occasions, viral meningitis can be life-threatening or cause lasting after effects, particularly if children have problems with their immune system.
Viral meningitis is more common in children than adults but it can occur in any age group.
In Queensland, around 300 people are admitted to hospital with viral meningitis each year.
Bacterial meningitis (which includes pneumococcal and meningococcal meningitis) is a serious and sometimes fatal condition that can progress quickly. The condition can lead to permanent disabilities including deafness and brain injury. If diagnosed and treated early, full recovery can occur.
Signs and symptoms
Meningitis symptoms will vary depending on your child’s age and the type of infection. Symptoms may include:
- nausea or vomiting
- bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on a baby’s head)
- irritability and high pitched cry (particularly in young babies)
- arching of the body or neck
- stiff neck (in older children)
- sensitivity to bright lights
- joint and muscle aches and pains
- drowsiness or confusion
- a rash which looks like red/purplish spots which do not turn white when you push on them.
The symptoms may occur in any order and may not all be present at the same time or during the whole course of the illness.
Both types of meningitis can generate similar symptoms. As bacterial meningitis can cause death within hours, it is important that you immediately seek medical attention if you are concerned about your child.
How is it diagnosed?
Meningitis is primarily diagnosed using a lumbar puncture. During the procedure, a doctor will insert a needle into your child’s lower back between the bones of the spine and take a sample of spinal fluid. This fluid and blood tests will help doctors diagnose the condition.
What is the treatment?
There is no specific treatment for viral meningitis as antibiotics do not work on viruses. Treatment usually consists of rest, pain medication as necessary and plenty of fluids.
This type of meningitis is more severe and your child will need treatment with intravenous antibiotics. Bacterial meningitis can worsen quickly and your child will be monitored closely while they stay in hospital.
Around 20 per cent of people may carry a meningitis bacterium in their nose and throat at any one time. This is harmless until it is spread by sneezing, coughing and sharing food or drinks. Meningitis spreads differently depending on the child and the type of virus or infection. Some viruses that cause meningitis are spread from person to person by respiratory secretions, through contact with faecal matter, and by mosquito bites.
There is no vaccine against most types of viral meningitis. However, you can minimise the risk of your child contracting or spreading the virus by encouraging them to wash their hands thoroughly with warm soapy water for at least 15 seconds after going to the toilet and blowing their nose, and before eating.
Rarer forms of viral meningitis can be transmitted by mosquitos particularly in tropical zones.
There are vaccines for some forms of bacterial meningitis. Ensuring your child’s immunisations are up to date is the best way to prevent bacterial meningitis.
Queensland Children’s Hospital
501 Stanley Street, South Brisbane 4101
t: 07 3068 1111 (general enquiries)
In an emergency, always call 000.
If it’s not an emergency but you have any concerns, contact 13 Health (13 43 2584). Qualified staff will give you advice on who to talk to and how quickly you should do it. You can phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.