How to tell if your baby has bacterial meningitis

Here’s a checklist of possible symptoms seen in babies and children with this life-threatening illness.

06 January 2015
by Wendy Maritz

What is bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis is an infection of the meninges – the thin membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord – and is caused by a number of bacterial strains. The condition is life threatening and should always be treated as a medical emergency. (Note that meningitis can also be viral, however this form of meningitis is usually far less severe.)

What causes it?

Bacterial meningitis can result from infection from a number of bacteria, explains Cape Town paediatrician Dr Sarah Karabus. The one most likely to cause epidemics according the South African Department of Health, is meningococcal meningitis. Other more common bacterial strains include Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which develops as a complication of TB, and Group B streptococcus, which can be transmitted from the mother during delivery. Streptococcus pneumoniae and haemophilus influenzae are less common than they were previously as vaccines for both of these have been developed in recent years, says Dr Karabus.

Signs and symptoms

Babies and small children will not always exhibit the same symptoms as adults do. Furthermore, they will not be able to communicate how they are feeling. Parents are urged to keep a lookout for the following signs and symptoms that may indicate their child is ill with meningitis, advises Dr Karabus.

In newborns and small babies: irritability, crying, fever, poor feeding, lethargy, and a bulging fontanelle (the soft area on top of a baby’s skull).
In older babies and small children: all the above symptoms, as well as headache, vomiting and photophobia (a sensitivity to light).

These symptoms may develop quite quickly, or slowly over a few days.

Prevention and vaccinations

  • Vaccinations are available for streptococcus pneumonia and haemophilus influenza, and in recent weeks a vaccination has become available for meningococcal meningitis.
  • Infection with Group B streptococcus usually shows no symptoms, so moms-to-be must get screened for this during their pregnancy.
  • Antibiotics: meningococcal meningitis, haemophilus influenza and TB can be spread through close contact, and must be treated with antibiotics to curb the spread.
  • Awareness: Meningitis has sporadic outbreaks in South Africa, but it is most common during droughts, in dry and dusty areas, and during winter and spring, according the Health Department. 

Be vigilant if there is an outbreak of meningitis is your area, and remember that bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency – if your child exhibits any of the symptoms mentioned above, they must be taken to hospital immediately.

Baby immunisations are available at Clicks clinics. Stay on track with your little one's immunisations with the Clicks childhood vaccination schedule.