Infant Meningitis

Infant meningitis is the result if inflammation of the membranes surrounding the spinal cord. It can be very dangerous without proper and timely treatment.

Newborn babies are at a much higher risk of developing meningitis than any other age group, as their immune system is weaker and more susceptible to viruses and illnesses. Since the virus, bacteria or fungus that causes infant meningitis can be transferred from mother to baby, prenatal care and virus screening for the disease is extremely important.

What is Infant Meningitis?

Meningitis happens when a viral or bacterial infection spreads to the spinal fluid and spinal cord. Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae are forms of bacterial meningitis, and are considered much more dangerous than viral meningitis.

Whereas viral meningitis can typically resolve on its own without extensive treatment in older children or adults, infant meningitis should be treated immediately. Bacterial meningitis is a serious illness that can lead to brain damage, hearing loss, and even death. Although it was more common prior to the 1990s, Haemophilus influenzae type b is another cause of bacterial meningitis.

What Causes Infant Meningitis?

Physicians test pregnant women for various viruses and bacteria, such as HIV, syphilis, herpes simplex virus and Group B strep. They are not, however, tested for all forms of bacteria that can cause meningitis. Some of the many causes of meningitis include:

  • Non-polio enteroviruses
  • Influenza
  • Measles
  • Mumps
  • Varicella
  • Herpes simplex virus
  • West Nile virus
  • Group B Streptococcus
  • Gram-negative bacilli (E. coli, etc.)
  • Listeria monocytogenes

Any of these viruses or bacteria can result in the mother passing an infection to her baby during labor and delivery.

It’s especially important that doctors test the mother for certain viruses or bacteria between week 35-37 of pregnancy because that is when the doctor will know for sure whether the mother has Group B Strep, something that is passed to the child merely by his or her progressing through the birth canal.

Other ways of exposure include coming into contact with anyone who carries the virus, such as kissing someone who is infected. Casual contact, such as holding an infant, doesn’t usually result in exposure.

Can Infant Meningitis be Prevented?

Because there are various types of infections that can cause infant meningitis, it is difficult to say what could possibly prevent it. However, there are some things that mothers and healthcare providers can do. For example, a vaccine (HiB) has caused haemophilus type B meningitis to become extremely rare. Unfortunately, the vaccines that do exist to prevent meningitis are most often only available to older children and adults.

Symptoms of Group B Strep among Mothers

Most mothers do not know that they have Group B Strep. In fact, doctors say that around 40 percent of women carry Group B Strep in the lower intestines, anus and vagina without even knowing it.  There are no symptoms that indicate that the mother has the bacteria in her system – these women are called asymptomatic carriers.

By testing anywhere between weeks 35 and 37 of pregnancy, the doctor should be able to identify whether the mother has Group B Strep. During labor and delivery, she will receive pregnancy-friendly antibiotics to help combat the infection and prevent it from spreading to the baby.

Symptoms of Meningitis in Babies

Symptoms of meningitis often appear rapidly. If your infant suddenly begins experiencing symptoms, it may be difficult to comfort him or her.

infant meningitis

Symptoms of meningitis often include:

  • Neck stiffness
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness
  • Not being as active as usual
  • Being more irritable than usual
  • Poor feeding habits

With newborns, many of the symptoms may be difficult to determine, such as headaches and nausea. Infants who have a high fever may also experience seizures if they have meningitis.

Tests to Confirm Meningitis Diagnosis

There are tests that can confirm a diagnosis of infant meningitis. These tests may include:

  • Blood cultures: Blood is taken from the infant and is placed on a plate that grows viruses, bacteria or fungi. If something grows, doctors can tell the cause of meningitis and make an accurate diagnosis.
  • Blood tests: Blood can also be analyzed in a lab for signs of infection.
  • Spinal tap: A test that removes some fluid from around the spinal cord. It can also be analyzed or subjected to culture tests.
  • CT scan: Computed tomography (CT scan) can show if there is a pocket of infection in the brain.

How is Infant Meningitis Treated?

As mentioned earlier, infant meningitis is a very severe condition, and if you catch any of these signs in your baby, medical treatment is imperative. Treatment generally consists of IV antibiotics for 14-21 days. 

If, however, the meningitis isn’t treated immediately, the bacteria can affect the brain causing potential brain damage and death. If brain damage occurs, the infant may develop cerebral palsy, a paralysis in the areas of the brain that communicate muscle movement to the rest of the body.

Prognosis for Infant Meningitis

If infant meningitis is diagnosed and treated quickly, the prognosis is generally favorable. Most infants fully recover as long as they get adequate treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 80-90 percent of people who develop meningitis caused by meningococcal bacteria survive.

If treatment is delayed, however, the prognosis is not as good. Delayed treatment can result in long-term effects, such as:

  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Seizures
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Brain damage

The CDC estimates that between 11 and 19 percent of children with meningococcal bacteria infections experience long-term effects.

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Tiffany Lee, M.D.

Page Medically Reviewed By Tiffany Lee, M.D.

Tiffany Lee, M.D. is a board certified general pediatrician. She has experience in primary and urgent care. She is also a skilled tele-health practitioner. She is a regular medical reviewer for Birth Injury Guide.

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