by Beth Gibbons |

What is meningitis?

The mere mention of meningitis in babies fills all parents with dread. The rash that does’t go away is the symptom we all hear about. It’s worrying because it’s an infection of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Once the membranes are infected, they can become swollen, leading to nerve and brain damage. Although it’s serious, meningitis is relatively uncommon – but it’s still important to be aware and get clued up on what it could mean for your child.

Types of meningitis

Meningitis is broken down into two kinds – bacterial and viral. ‘Bacterial meningitis is the worst type,’ says GP Rebekah Gibbons. ‘It can cause severe brain damage and blood poisoning.’ Around 2,500 children develop bacterial meningitis in the UK every year – the illness is most common in the under fives.

Viral meningitis is more common but less serious and most children make a full recovery. ‘As it’s impossible to rule out bacterial meningitis without tests, both should be treated as a medical emergency,’ says Rebekah.

Meningitis symptoms

While meningitis rash is the most well known symptom, there are plenty of other signs that happen beforehand. The infection start as mild flu-like symptoms and progress to blood poisoning in a matter of hours. Key symptoms include fever (a temperature of more than 38˚C), vomiting, refusal to feed, a high-pitched or moaning cry and irritability.

Babies may also develop pale blotchy skin, a bulging fontanelle (the soft dip in the top of the skull), rapid breathing, a floppy body or stiffness with jerky movements, and cold hands and feet. A stiff neck and sensitivity to bright lights are also typical. ‘If blood poisoning sets in, this can also trigger a purple spotty rash that doesn’t fade when you press a glass tumbler on it,’ says Rebekah.

Signs and symptoms of meningitis include: 

  • High fever, with cold hands and feet

  • Vomiting and refusal to feed

  • Feeling agitated and not wanting to be picked up

  • Drowsy, floppy and unresponsive

  • Grunting or breathing rapidly

  • Unusually high-pitched or moaning cry

  • Pale, blotchy skin, and a red rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over it

  • Tense, bulging soft spot on their head (fontanelle)

  • Stiff neck and dislike bright lights

  • Convulsions or seizures

What can you do?

Make sure your child is up to date with her jabs. As part of the childhood immunisation scheme she will receive a pneumococcal vaccination at two, four and 12 months, which protects against pneumococcal meningitis, the second biggest cause of bacterial meningitis. She will already receive a meningitis C vaccine at three and four months old, and then again between 12 and 13 months.

The UK is the first country to provide a new meningitis B vaccine that will protect your baby from the most dangerous form of the desease. It must be received at the ages of two, four and 12 months. Breastfeeding your baby and ensuring she has a varied diet, including a diversity of fruit and vegetables once she weans, is important for strengthening her immune system. ‘Other than that, the most important thing you can do is to be vigilant for any worrying symptoms,’ says Dr Gibbons.

Treatment of meningitis

The baby would be urgently admissioned into a hospital and treated with antibiotics. A test for bacterial meningitis is carried out by applying lumbar puncture, a procedure of taking out a sample of cerebrospinal fluid in order to establish whether a child has meningitis. If she has viral meningitis, antibiotics treatment wil stop. In the most severe cases the baby can be taken into intense care unit where she will remain under close observation.

Viral meningitis is also an emergency, but the treatment for it is pain relievers, drinking lots of fluid and resting, rather than taking antibiotics. However, they may be still used in the beginning until the viral meningitis is diagnosed.

See your GP urgently if… 

Meningitis develops very quickly, sometimes within hours. You notice any of the above symptoms and feel concerned. ‘Bear in mind that not all children develop the rash,’ says Dr Gibbons. ‘Don’t wait for it to appear to seek help. If it’s not possible to see a GP urgently, take your child to the nearest A&E department.’

Blood tests and possibly a sample of fluid taken from your baby’s spine will help to diagnose your child – if necessary, intravenous antibiotics will be given. The sooner your child receives treatment the better her chances of recovery.

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