Meningitis in Children

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The brain and spinal cord are surrounded by layers of tissue called meninges. Meningitis occurs when these layers become swollen and irritated. Swelling in these layers can put pressure on your child’s brain and spinal cord. The most common forms of meningitis include: 

  • Viral meningitis — more common in children under 5 years old
  • Aseptic meningitis — caused by a variety of medical conditions (except bacteria)
  • Bacterial meningitis — generally the most serious form

Causes of Meningitis

Viral meningitis may be caused by several viruses. Examples include:

  • Enteroviruses
  • Herpes viruses
  • Mumps
  • Varicella virus (chickenpox)
  • Measles
  • Rubella viruses
  • West Nile virus

Bacterial meningitis is very serious, but less common. There are several types of bacteria that cause meningitis. Leading causes in the United States are:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • Group B Streptococcus
  • Neisseria meningitidis
  • Haemophilus influenzae
  • Listeria monocytogenes

Children who have conditions that weaken the immune system or who are taking treatments that suppress the immune system are at a higher risk of meningitis.


Symptoms of viral meningitis include:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff, sore neck
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • Sleepiness 

Symptoms in newborns and infants include:

  • Inactivity
  • High fever, especially unexplained high fever
  • Irritability
  • Vomiting
  • Feeding poorly or refusing to eat
  • Tautness or bulging of soft spots on the head
  • Difficulty awakening

Diagnosis and Treatment at UVA Health Children's

Viral meningitis has symptoms similar to bacterial meningitis. To make sure that your child does not have bacterial meningitis, your child may have:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Sputum tests
  • Lumbar puncture — to evaluate the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord and brain
  • Tests of pus from skin infections

Treatment includes:

  • Rest and fluids
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Antibiotics may be given for 2-3 days while the doctor waits for test results —antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infections
  • IV antiviral drugs — used for severe infections; only a few viruses can be treated this way