Meningitis in Babies: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Meningitis is a condition that causes inflammation in the meninges, which protect the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is often caused by a virus or bacteria.

Meningitis is an uncommon but potentially dangerous infection. Babies under 2 months of age are at greater risk of developing meningitis.

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Experts are not certain why some babies get meningitis, but they suspect it could be connected to their immature immune systems.

Meningitis can have lasting effects on babies and can be deadly in some cases. However, prompt medical intervention can significantly reduce the risk of serious complications.

Symptoms of Meningitis in Babies

The symptoms of meningitis in babies may not be disturbing at first. Some babies may simply appear irritable or tired.

Meningitis can quickly become serious, so it is vital to be aware of its symptoms and to seek medical care promptly if meningitis is suspected.

The most common symptoms of meningitis in babies include:

  • Bulging fontanel (the soft spot on top of the head). This may be caused by increased pressure or fluid in the brain.
  • Fever. Babies under 3 months of age may not have fever, but a high temperature is a major indicator of an infection.
  • Cold hands and feet with a warm torso.
  • Chills. This may include shivering or chills, with or without a fever.
  • A stiff neck. Babies may hold their bodies in a stiff position and may hold their head tilted back.
  • Irritability and crying, especially when picked up
  • Rapid breathing
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Lack of appetite or refusing to eat
  • Extreme sleepiness. A person may have difficulty with or be unable to wake the baby.
  • Red or dark rash or marks on the body. If a baby has a fever, appears ill, and develops a rash, seek medical care immediately.

Causes of Meningitis

Bacteria and viruses are the most common causes of meningitis in babies. Bacterial meningitis is typically more dangerous than viral meningitis, though both require prompt medical intervention.

Causes of viral meningitis

Several viruses can cause viral meningitis. They include:

  • Non-polio enteroviruses. These are the most common cause of viral meningitis. They are often spread through contact with the saliva, secretions from eyes/nose, and stool of an infected person.
  • Influenza. Influenza or the flu can be severe in babies, as it may lead to meningitis. It is spread through coughing, sneezing, and close contact with an infected person.
  • Herpes simplex viruses (HSV). These viruses cause cold sores and genital herpes. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 65 percent of the world’s population has HSV, and many are unaware of it. A person can spread HSV to a baby through kissing, even when they have no symptoms. A mother can pass on HSV to her newborn during birth.
  • Varicella-zoster virus. This virus causes shingles and chickenpox. It is highly contagious and commonly spreads through taking, breathing, or contact with an infected person’s wounds.
  • Measles and mumps. These diseases are very contagious and are spread through talking, coughing, sneezing, and sharing items. Measles and mumps are less common since vaccines were introduced.
  • West Nile virusor other viruses spread by mosquitoes.

Most of these viruses will not cause meningitis in a healthy adult. However, babies are mostly at risk of meningitis and other complications, so protecting them from these illnesses is vital.

Causes of Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis can be caused by several different types of bacteria. The most common types that infect babies include:

  • Group B streptococcus, known as group B strep. This is passed from mother to newborn during labor and childbirth if the mother is infected and not treated.
  • Listeria monocytogenes, which is spread through contaminated food. A fetus can be infected with listeriaduring pregnancy if the mother consumes food contaminated with the bacteria.
  • Escherichia coli( coli), which is also spread from mother to baby during labor and birth and by eating contaminated food.
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), which are commonly spread through coughing and sneezing.
  • Neisseria meningitidis, spread through saliva.

Treating meningitis in babies

Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics that are typically given intravenously in the hospital through an IV.

According to the AAP, most babies who receive prompt antibiotic treatment will recover completely. However, about 20 percent may be left with lifetime effects, such as paralysis, learning and hearing disabilities, and seizures.

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Viral meningitis does not respond to antibiotics. It is usually not as serious as bacterial meningitis (except for HSV in newborns), and many babies will recover completely without complications.


Meningitis can be spread easily from person to person. Though it cannot be prevented completely, some precautions can considerably reduce the risk of a baby getting it.


Babies should receive vaccines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or as recommended by a doctor.

Vaccines do not prevent all cases of meningitis, but they help protect against several types of serious bacterial and viral meningitis. This greatly reduces the risk of a baby getting the disease.

Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) vaccine

Prior to when the Hib vaccine was available, this bacteria was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis. Today, infection with Hib has become much less common due to the vaccine. Hib vaccine is given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age, and again between 12 and 15 months of age. Hib vaccine is given either alone or in a combination vaccine.

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Pneumococcal vaccine

Pneumococcus bacteria can cause meningitis and pneumonia. The pneumococcal vaccine is typically given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age, followed by a final dose between 12 and 15 months of age.

Children with certain health conditions may get an additional dose between 2 and 5 years of age.

Meningococcal vaccine

The most common type of meningococcal vaccine is known as the meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4). This vaccine is usually not given to babies, but to children 11 years of age and older.

MMR vaccine

The MMR vaccine protects against measles, mumps, and rubella. Before this vaccine became available, mumps was a common cause of viral meningitis, especially in babies and children. Measles can also cause meningitis.

The MMR vaccine is given at 12 to 15 months of age and again at 4 through 6 years of age.

Protecting newborns

Newborns have not yet received all their vaccines, and their immune systems have not developed wholly. So, it is often better to avoid people and places that may expose a baby to higher amounts of germs. Help protect babies from meningitis and other illnesses with these tips:

  • People who have cold sores should avoid kissing babies.
  • Keep babies away from people who are sneezing, sick, coughing, or not feeling well.
  • Keep the baby away from large crowds of people.
  • Wash hands before breastfeeding or preparing food or bottles for a baby.
  • Ask others to wash their hands before holding the baby and to avoid touching the baby’s face.
  • Keep babies indoors during prime mosquito activity.
  • Pregnant women should get a group B strep test between 35 and 37 weeks of pregnancy. Mothers who test positive for group B strep should receive antibiotics during labor to prevent spreading the infection to the baby.


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