The Biggest Early Warning Signs Of Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis, a potentially fatal infection that causes the protective membranes of the brain and spine to become inflamed, is relatively rare. According to the National Meningitis Association, about “600 – 1,000 people contract meningococcal disease in the U.S. each year.”

But, as 21% of those cases occur in children and young adults ages 11-24, it’s not a bad idea to know a bit more about what bacterial meningitis is, what the early warning signs are and how it’s treated. This is especially important as we head into back-to-school season ― perhaps the germiest time of the year.

Here’s how to identify the issue and what to do if you suspect your child has it:

The Early Symptoms Of Bacterial Meningitis

How can you spot bacterial meningitis in kids or young adults? The less-than-ideal answer is that it can be difficult to diagnose right away, according to Dr. Kristin Moffitt, a physician in the infectious disease division of Boston Children’s Hospital.

Some of the early symptoms include fever and headache. Of course, these red flags are incredibly broad.

Typically, “99.9% of the time fever and headache are not due to bacterial meningitis,” Moffitt told HuffPost. “I wouldn’t want parents to be concerned that these two things mean something horribly serious is going on, because the odds are, they’re not.”

Other signs include sleepiness, a rash on the skin, bruising easily, irritability and a lack of appetite, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Symptoms usually come on quickly once someone is infected ― often within a few hours.

And when these include issues like lethargy, a stiff neck, sensitivity to light, confusion, or nausea and vomiting, that’s the time to seek emergency care, Moffitt said.

How Bacterial Meningitis Is Spread And What To Do If You Notice Symptoms

There are some initial steps you can take after noticing symptoms — namely, monitoring your child closely and creating a course of action.

“If a child is not showing the full constellation of symptoms consistent with bacterial meningitis, I think it’s OK to start by treating the fever and getting on a call with your pediatrician’s office,” Moffitt said.

Bacterial meningitis is commonly spread through prolonged and fairly close contact with an infected person — like sitting next to them for an entire day in a classroom, for example — and it’s not necessarily just something transmitted in passing. However, even if a child contracts an illness from an infected classmate, that does not mean they will definitely experience bacterial meningitis.

“The majority of people exposed to or infected with these bacteria don’t develop meningitis,” Moffitt said. “It’s not entirely clear why, in rare instances, infection with these bacteria can lead to meningitis, but it likely has to do with factors unique to both the bacteria and the newly infected host.”

Still, while not very common, early diagnosis is crucial in ensuring swift treatment.

“The only true way to determine bacterial meningitis is by doing a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, which is done in an [emergency room],” Moffitt said. “Ideally, IV antibiotics are also started as soon as someone suspects bacterial meningitis.”

Without taking these steps, the risk of long-term issues increases. Moffitt said these tend to be neurological, and they can have an effect on brain development or cause hearing loss. The course of treatment usually involves 7 to 14 days of IV antibiotic, but Moffitt said patients should start to feel better between 24 and 48 hours after medical care begins.

Luckily, as with many of the other infectious diseases spread through respiratory droplets or oral secretions, there are effective ways to prevent contracting and passing on bacterial meningitis.

“Keeping a child up to date on their immunizations is far and away one of the most effective steps toward keeping them protected,” Moffitt said, adding that other crucial measures include regular hand-washing and letting a child stay home when they feel sick.

“This is just another reminder to parents: Please don’t send your children to school if they’re sick, having a fever,” she said. “I hope we’ve all learned that it’s not appropriate to give a dose of ibuprofen to a child and send them on their way.”