Symptoms and Signs of Meningitis in Children

Doctor's Notes on Meningitis in Children

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and/or the spinal cord. The signs and symptoms meningitis in children are not always obvious because children can’t communicate symptoms reliably. The following is a list of possible symptoms in infants and/or children bacterial – caused meningitis that children’s caregivers may need to recognize as bacterial meningitis is considered a medical emergency. For infants younger than three months, signs and symptoms may include one or more the following:

  • poor feeding,
  • vomiting,
  • lethargy,
  • stiff neck,
  • fever,
  • bulging fontanelle (swollen soft spot on top of the infant’s head) ,
  • jaundice,
  • hypothermia,
  • seizure activity,
  • shock, and
  • hypotonia (floppiness or decreased muscle tone).

Children older than one year of age may show the following classic symptoms:

  • headache,
  • nausea and vomiting,
  • lethargy,
  • neck stiffness or neck pain,
  • Brudzinski sign (knees automatically brought toward body when neck is bent forward) ,
  • Kernig sign (hips flexed 900 then unable to straighten lower legs) ,
  • rash,
  • altered mental status,
  • seizures, and
  • coma.

Symptoms of viral meningitis resemble those of the flu:

Some children may exhibit one or more bacterial meningitis signs and symptoms but they are usually less severe.

The cause of meningitis is mainly bacteria or viral organisms that reach the bloodstream and are able to get through the blood-brain barriers to reach the meningeal membranes.

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 3/11/2019


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.