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Meningitis is a feared infection in children. Bacterial meningitis is life-threatening and requires immediate care. Viral meningitis is rarely life-threatening but may require hospitalization. Symptoms of meningitis include fever, neck stiffness or neck pain, headache and often vomiting.
Bacterial meningitis is a life-threatening condition
Children with bacterial meningitis often have high fever. They may also have low body temperature, or periods of normal body temperature. They always feel very sick, sicker than they’ve been before. They’re hard to connect with, and it just gets harder and harder. The skin becomes pale, cold and sweaty. In some forms, bleeding occurs under the skin. Children could vomit and, generally, have severe headaches.
In addition, children are sometimes stiff in the neck. By neck stiffness, I mean that it is not possible to bend your head forward. If the child is lying on their back and I lift their head to put their chin to their chest, the whole back follows along and I end up sitting the child up. The neck and back are as stiff as a plank.
If this applies to your child (whether the child has a stiff neck or not) – call the emergency services and ask for an ambulance. The ambulance will turn on the sirens, I promise.
Viral meningitis may need medical care
Children with viral meningitis can also be severely lethargic, have headaches, neck stiffness and fever. However, they are often not as sick as children with bacterial meningitis. It is reasonable to seek emergency medical care, but you do not always have to call an ambulance.
Some viruses can also enter the brain itself and cause encephalitis. That’s when children can get repeated cramps and become very sick. TBE viruses, chickenpox viruses and measles viruses are three viruses that can cause meningitis or encephalitis.
Fever and sore throat – probably not meningitis
Most children with a fever and sore neck do not have meningitis. Tonsillitis and glandular fever cause swollen lymph nodes on the neck which can also make it impossible to move the neck.
Sometimes children with or without fever get a stiff nick. Then the neck becomes really stiff and sore. If the child otherwise seems reasonably alert, it is a good idea to ease the pain with acetaminophen or ibuprofen and a warm wet towel in a pillowcase or a wheatbag over the neck. So if you as the parent feel that the child is not very sick – trust that feeling.
A child with a fever who hasn’t had enough fluids may also get a headache and become tired. Acetaminophen, juice and an ice pop should do the trick.
Vaccine against meningitis
There are vaccines against several of the viruses and bacteria that cause meningitis or brain infections. This is because it is a priority to develop these vaccines precisely because meningitis and brain infections can become so serious.
Some of the vaccines are part of the Swedish National Vaccination Program, such as the measles vaccine, Hemophilus influenzae type B and pneumococcus. Others are not included, such as chickenpox vaccines, TBE and meningococcal disease. These are available if you want to attend a vaccination center.
Read more about chickenpox (varicella) vaccine
Read more about the pneumococcal vaccine for children
TBE in children – symptoms, treatment, long term effects