What are meningitis and septicemia?

Meningitis is a contagious infection of the membranes (meninges) that cover the brain. Septicemia is a serious infection of the blood caused by bacteria. Meningitis usually affects infants, toddlers, and teenagers.

How is it caused?

The most common causes of meningitis in children are viruses in the summer, and bacteria in the winter. The main bacteria are meningococcal, pneumococcal, and haemophilus influenza.

How is it transmitted?

It is transmitted from person to person through the secretions of the mouth or contaminated objects.

What are the symptoms?

The child may not have all the typical symptoms!

The infant or the child has a fever and severe headache, complains of feeling very unwell, has pain in the legs, and is irritable. The child may present stiffness of the neck, and avoid bright light. The child may have no appetite, feel nauseous, and vomit. Also, the child may have a seizure. In small infants, the fontanelle on top of the head may be swollen and hard (bulging).

If there is a blood infection (septicemia), the child may have a rash that does not subside/ disappear with pressure. The skin may be pale and cold, and the child’s general condition is not good.

Deterioration is usually very quick, within hours.

What are the risks?

When meningitis caused by bacteria is not treated, it may result in brain damage or death. However, when treated in time and appropriately, the child usually makes a full recovery.

What should be done?

If your child has the symptoms described above, contact your paediatrician immediately, or take the child to the emergency department of the hospital. If the paediatrician suspects meningitis, the child will probably be hospitalized, where the diagnosis will be confirmed with a lumbar puncture and blood tests. For bacterial infections, antibiotics will be administered. Intensive care is frequently necessary. If the meningitis is due to a virus, it usually milder and subsides by itself.

How can meningitis be prevented?

Routine vaccines in infants against pneumococcus, meningococcus, and haemophilus are important for the prevention of the disease. However, even with these, the risk is not completely eliminated.

Children and grown-ups, who have come into contact, at home or at school, with the index patient suffering from bacterial meningitis, should take antibiotics for 2 days as a precaution.

If you suspect meningitis or have serious concerns, ask for medical help immediately; this is an emergency!


Stelios Papaventsis Paediatrician MRCPCH DCH 2010

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