Meningitis is a term used to describe an inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain or the spinal cord. Meningitis, especially bacterial meningitis, is a potentially life-threatening condition that can rapidly progress to permanent brain damage, neurologic problems, and even death. Doctors need to diagnose and treat meningitis quickly to prevent or reduce any long-term effects.
The inflammation causing meningitis is normally a direct result of either a bacterial infection or a viral infection. However, the inflammation can also be caused by more rare conditions, such as cancer, a drug reaction, a disease of the immune system or from other infectious agents such as fungi (cryptococcal meningitis) or parasites.
Normally, meningitis causes fever, lethargy, and a decreased mental status (problems thinking), but these symptoms are often hard to detect in young children.
If the infection or resulting inflammation progresses past the membranes of the brain or the spinal cord, then the process is called encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).
The highest incidence of meningitis is between birth and 2 years, with the greatest risk immediately following birth and at 3-8 months of age. Increased exposure to infections and underlying immune system problems present at birth increase an infant's risk of meningitis.
Classic or common symptoms of meningitis in infants younger than 3 months of age may include some of the following
Decreased liquid intake
Bulging fontanelle (soft spot on the top of the head)
Classic symptoms in children older than 1 year of age are as follows
Nausea and vomiting
Increased sensitivity to light
Altered mental status (seems confused or odd)
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)
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.