Meningitis can affect anyone, including babies under the age of 6 months. Even it is more common in infants and young children than older children and adults. Since meningitis in babies could turn into serious, treatment is necessary to prevent the disease from worsening. This is especially true for bacterial meningitis that often leaves lingering after effects.
How do babies get meningitis?
Meningitis is inflammation of the protective membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord called ‘meninges’. If poorly treated, the disease can cause serious complications or even become life-threatening. The good news, it’s often treatable and many babies can fully recover.
It has several causes, but in most cases it’s associated with infectious causes such as viral infections (mostly), bacterial and fungal infections. There are also some non-infectious causes – such as certain conditions (like rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus), certain medications, and injury. But non-infectious meningitis is rare.
Viral meningitis is less likely to become serious and cause lingering after effects, though sometimes it could turn into serious. Also, it is usually mild and easier to treat.
Bacterial meningitis is more serious. It tends to cause a number of lingering after effects – such as; hearing loss, learning difficulties, sight impairment, difficulty concentrating, speech problems, and seizures (these complications can range from mild to severe). Even in some cases, it could kill within hours.
Fungal meningitis can also become as dangerous as bacterial meningitis. But it is rare (not common).
Though most cases of the disease are caused by infectious causes, it’s not always contagious. Viral meningitis (the most common type of the disease), for example, it is not easy to become contagious.
Viruses that cause the disease can spread through sneezing or coughing. But when you get infected, this doesn’t mean that you will definitely develop meningitis. Your immune system may be strong enough to fight against the infection before it becomes advanced.
But it’s still important for people with viral meningitis to restrict /avoid a direct contact with anyone who’re more vulnerable to meningitis such as babies, young children, and patients with compromised immune system.
On the other hand, bacterial meningitis is contagious. Fortunately, bacteria that cause the disease can die easily if they are outside the body for long. Therefore, they’re not easy to spread from person to person. But prolonged direct contact with an infected patient may cause increased risk of transmission.
Signs and symptoms
Early treatment is important (particularly for bacterial meningitis). Unfortunately, early symptoms can be similar to other childhood illnesses, making it more difficult to understand. The symptom can also appear in any order.
Meningitis in babies can develop quickly and get worse fast, though this can vary for each case. In general, the symptoms are as follows:
- Unusual skin rash that doesn’t fade under pressure, see more in here.
- Fontanel, bulging-tense soft spot on the head.
- High fever. While fever is common in babies under 3 months, it could signal serious condition in babies more than 3 months of age.
- Poor feeding (refusing to feed), which may be followed with vomiting.
- Difficulty breathing (breathing fast, for example).
- Unusual, abnormal grunting sound.
- Irritability, high-pitched crying (irritable /dislike when picked up).
- Jerky movements with a stiff body.
- Extreme, unusual shivering.
- Unresponsive and sleepiness (very sleepy).
- Cold feet and hands.
- Sometimes diarrhea.
How to prevent the disease?
Though there is no any vaccine that can fight against all strains, several vaccines are available to help protect babies and young children from some types of meningitis. This vaccination is usually given as part of the routine immunization – for more guidance, consult with a doctor!
Some lifestyle measures may help, too. For examples, here are a few precautions to reduce your risk of getting /spreading bacteria and virus to your baby:
- Make sure to keep your hands (including under fingernails) clean – especially when you want to make a direct contact with your baby, after changing a diaper, after going to the toilet, or before /after tending to someone who’s sick. Wash your hands cleanly, with warm water and soap if necessary!
- Don’t share using straws, plates, or other eating utilities.
- When you need to sneeze or cough, cover your mouth and nose!
- Keep up to date with booster shots and immunizations for meningitis.
- Before traveling to certain country or area with higher rates of meningitis, ask your doctor first about any immunization you need to follow!
When to seek medical help?
Early treatment is necessary to prevent the disease (especially bacterial meningitis) from getting worse. This is also important to prevent a number of serious meningitis complications.
In babies, meningitis can be very dangerous if poorly treated. Neurological disorders (such as hearing loss, learning disabilities, and vision problem) are common in meningitis. Depending on the cause of the infection, other possible complications include; problems affecting adrenal glands, kidneys, and heart.
With prompt treatment, the disease is often curable without leaving lingering effects. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are crucial for the best chance of recovering fully.
When to call the doctor? Just remember the following helpful checklists: