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Clinical Reference Systems: Pediatric Advisor 10.0

Bacterial Meningitis


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.


In bacterial meningitis, the bacteria can spread directly from a nearby sinus infection, or the bacteria can spread through the bloodstream from an infection in another part of the body.

Spinal Tap

It is very important to determine whether a virus or bacteria are causing the meningitis. While children with viral meningitis usually get better without special treatment, bacterial meningitis can be life-threatening. It is for this reason that your child may need to undergo a test called a lumbar puncture (spinal tap).

A lumbar puncture is a procedure in which a hollow needle is inserted in the lower back to withdraw a small amount of spinal fluid. This procedure is very safe. By examining the fluid, the doctor can determine if the meningitis is viral or bacterial.

Expected Course

Bacterial meningitis is a serious, life-threatening illness. Children with bacterial meningitis may recover without any problems if the infection was detected within the first few hours and treated with antibiotics. Even with appropriate treatment, some types of meningitis can cause brain damage ranging from deafness to paralysis.


Your child will receive antibiotics intravenously (IV, or through a vein) and other supportive care in the hospital. The IV antibiotics are given for 2 weeks. When your child is released from the hospital antibiotics are no longer needed.


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 doctor will let you know when your child is no longer contagious and can return to normal activities. Until then, you should follow these precautionary measures:

  • 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.

Call Your Child's Physician IMMEDIATELY If:

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

Call Your Child's Physician Within 24 Hours If:

  • You have other questions or concerns.

Written by the Section of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, The Children's Hospital, Denver.
Copyright 1999 Clinical Reference Systems