Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord 3. In babies, especially newborns, meningitis can be a serious condition that can lead to death if left untreated 3. In babies younger than 2 to 3 months, the disease is called neonatal meningitis 3. A newborn believed to have meningitis should be taken to a doctor immediately, because prompt care may be able to control the infection and prevent severe complications 13.
If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
Neonatal meningitis can be caused by either a virus or a bacterial infection 3. Viruses that can cause meningitis in a newborn include the Coxsackie and the herpes simplex 13. Newborn bacterial meningitis may be the result of group B streptococcus, E. coli, Listeria or Haemophilus influenzae type B, also known as HiB 13. Bacterial neonatal meningitis may be contracted through the placenta before birth or during passage through the birth canal 3. Bacterial meningitis in a newborn is sometimes associated with sepsis, a bacterial infection of the blood that spreads throughout to many organs 13.
- a high fever
- a bulging or pulsing soft spot
- a rash
- difficulty breathing 3
Neonatal meningitis is a medical emergency requiring hospitalization 3. In infant patients, broad-spectrum antibiotics are typically delivered via IV immediately while the doctor awaits test results that indicate the specific cause of the meningitis 3. If the cause is determined to be bacterial, antibiotics specific to that bacterial strain will be used. Viral meningitis caused by the herpes virus is treated with the anti-viral medication acyclovir 3. Other sources of viral meningitis do not respond to antibiotics or anti-virals, so treatment only involves alleviating the symptoms and keeping the infant warm and hydrated 3.
According to Merck Manuals, up to 25 percent of newborns with meningitis who receive treatment still die and more than 50 percent have long-term complications such as learning disabilities or brain and nerve damage 3. Without treatment, almost all neonatal meningitis patients die 3.
Prevention of meningitis in a newborn hinges on good prenatal and postnatal care and an avoidance of foods that may be infected with Listeria bacteria or E. coli while pregnant 13. Doctors typically test for Group B strep in the last weeks of pregnancy and place a mother-to-be on antibiotics before delivery and the baby on antibiotics after birth if the bacteria are present in the birth canal. Pregnant women with a herpes simplex infection may be put on anti-virals before birth or may opt for a Cesarean section to avoid infecting the baby during delivery.
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