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Meningitis in Children (cont.)

Symptoms and Signs of Meningitis in Children

In infants, the signs and symptoms of meningitis are not always obvious due to the infant's inability to communicate symptoms. Therefore, caregivers (parents, relatives, guardians) must pay very close attention to the infant's overall condition. The following is a list of possible symptoms seen in infants or children with bacterial meningitis (bacterial meningitis at any age is considered a medical emergency):

  • Classic or common symptoms of meningitis in infants younger than 3 months of age may include some of the following:
    • Decreased liquid intake/poor feeding
    • Vomiting
    • Lethargy
    • Rash
    • Stiff neck
    • Increased irritability
    • Increased lethargy
    • Fever
    • Bulging fontanelle (soft spot on the top of the head)
    • Seizure activity
    • Hypothermia (low temperature)
    • Shock
    • Hypotonia (floppiness)
    • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
    • Jaundice (yellowing of skin)
  • Classic symptoms in children older than 1 year of age are as follows:
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Headache
    • Increased sensitivity to light
    • Fever
    • Altered mental status (seems confused or odd)
    • Lethargy
    • Seizure activity
    • Coma
    • Neck stiffness or neck pain
    • Knees automatically brought up toward the body when the neck is bent forward or pain in the legs when bent (called Brudzinski sign)
    • Inability to straighten the lower legs after the hips have already been flexed 90 degrees (called Kernig sign)
    • Rash

Symptoms of viral meningitis most commonly resemble those of the flu (fever, muscle aches, cough, headache but some may have one or more of the symptoms listed above for bacterial meningitis), but the symptoms are usually considerably milder.

When to Seek Medical Care

If a caregiver is concerned that a child has developed meningitis, immediate medical evaluation of the child is essential. Because meningitis is a medical emergency, treatment at a hospital's emergency department is more appropriate than at a doctor's office. If transportation is not available, a caregiver should immediately call 911 for emergency medical services to have the child brought to a hospital's emergency department.

Meningitis is a disease that needs prompt diagnosis and aggressive treatment, especially if it is bacterial. A doctor must perform specific tests to check for the type (usually bacterial or viral) of meningitis. Meningitis cannot be diagnosed over the phone or simply based on a telephone description of the situation.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/2/2014

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