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Bacterial Meningitis

What is bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis is an infection of the meninges (the covering of the brain and spinal cord). Children with meningitis often have sudden symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness. Children may also have nausea, vomiting, and a worse headache when in a lighted area. They may become confused or difficult to awaken. Meningitis can resemble a bad case of the flu.

What causes bacterial meningitis?

Bacteria spread to the brain and spinal cord from an infection in another part of the body. The bacteria can spread directly from a nearby sinus infection, or can come from any other infection in the body by traveling through the bloodstream.

What is a spinal tap?

It is very important to find out whether a virus or bacteria are causing the problem. While children with viral meningitis usually get better without special treatment, bacterial meningitis can be life-threatening. This is why your child may need to have a test called a spinal tap. It is also called a lumbar puncture.

A spinal tap is a procedure in which a hollow needle is put in the spinal canal in the lower back to withdraw a small amount of spinal fluid. This procedure is very safe. There is no risk of your child becoming paralyzed because the needle is inserted below the level of the spinal cord. By examining the spinal fluid, the doctor can tell if the meningitis is caused by a virus or bacteria.

How long will the effects last?

Bacterial meningitis is a serious illness. Your child may recover without any problems if the infection was found early and treated with antibiotics. Even with appropriate treatment, some types of meningitis can cause brain damage ranging from deafness to paralysis to death.

How is it treated?

Your child will receive IV antibiotics (medicine through a vein) and care in the hospital. Your child may be given a prescription for antibiotics to continue taking after he or she is home from the hospital.

How can I help prevent it from spreading?

The bacteria causing the meningitis can be passed from person to person. The length of time your child will be contagious can be anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks, depending on the type of bacteria. Your health care provider will let you know when your child is no longer contagious and can return to normal activities. Until then, you should:

  • Wash your child's hands frequently.
  • Wash your hands frequently and make sure anyone who has contact with your child does the same.
  • Do not let family members share cups or utensils.
  • Avoid contact with saliva, such as by kissing your child.

When should I call my child's health care provider?


  • Your child starts to act very sick.
  • You or someone who has had contact with your child develops symptoms of meningitis.

Call within 24 hours if:

  • You have other questions or concerns.
Written by the Section of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, The Children's Hospital, Denver.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2006-02-23
Last reviewed: 2006-10-17
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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