Meningitis is a potentially dangerous infection that is most common among infants under two months old, according to Dr. Saad Saad.
Meningitis is most often caused by a virus or bacteria that triggers inflammation in the meninges, which protects the brain and spinal cord. Bacterial meningitis is typically more dangerous than viral meningitis, though both require prompt medical care.
Experts have not determined why some infants get meningitis. They believe the infant’s immature immune system increases the risk.
Dr. Saad Saad, a noted New Jersey pediatric surgeon, shares critical information for parents regarding this medical condition. Meningitis can have lasting effects on infants and can be fatal in some cases. With prompt medical treatment, the risk of serious complications can be significantly reduced.
Vaccines are certainly important, but vaccinations don’t begin until the infant is two months old, explains Dr. Saad. Therefore, parents must keep a close eye looking for symptoms in the earliest months.
Symptoms to watch for
Extreme sleepiness, fever and chills, and refusal to feed are all symptoms of meningitis in babies, says Dr. Saad Saad. These symptoms may not seem alarming at first. In fact, some babies may simply appear tired and irritable.
However, because meningitis can become serious quickly, it is essential to seek medical care immediately when you suspect symptoms of meningitis.
Dr. Saad Saad outlines common meningitis symptoms in infants:
- Bulging fontanel, which is the soft spot on top of the head. Increased pressure or fluid in the brain may cause this.
- Fever, although infants under 3 months old may not have a fever.
- Cold hands and feet with a warm torso.
- Shivering or chills, with or without a fever.
- Stiff neck, with head held tilted back.
- Irritability and crying, especially when picked up.
- Rapid breathing.
- Vomiting persistently.
- Refusing to feed.
- Extreme sleepiness and difficult to wake up.
- Red or dark rash or marks on the body.
When to see a doctor
Meningitis in infants can develop quickly and rapidly become serious. For this reason, babies should be given emergency medical care when any symptoms of meningitis appear, or if the baby’s behavior is unusual, says Dr. Saad Saad.
While meningitis can be serious, babies tend to recover from viral or bacterial meningitis with proper medical care.
Viral causes of meningitis
Dr. Saad Saad says that several viruses can cause viral meningitis, including:
Influenza – Influenza or the flu is especially serious in babies, as it may lead to meningitis. It is spread through coughing, sneezing, and close contact with an infected person.
Non-polio enteroviruses – These are the most common cause of viral meningitis. They are typically spread through contact with an infected person’s saliva, eye or nose secretions, or from their stool. Most people only develop a mild illness.
Herpes simplex viruses (HSV) – Cold sores and genital herpes are also caused by these viruses. HSV can be spread to a baby via kissing, even when the adult has no symptoms. Newborns can also contract HSV from their mothers during birth.
Varicella-zoster virus – This is the chickenpox and shingles virus, which is highly contagious and commonly spreads through talking, breathing, or touching the infected person’s blisters.
Measles and mumps
These diseases are less common today (thanks to vaccines) but are very serious in infants. Measles and mumps are highly contagious and are easily spread via talking, coughing, sneezing, and sharing cups or other items.
Diseases such as West Nile virus can also trigger meningitis.
Healthy people will generally not get meningitis from these viruses. However, infants are at higher risk of meningitis and other complications, it’s very necessary to protect them from these illnesses.
Bacterial causes of meningitis
Bacteria present during pregnancy, labor, or childbirth can infect the baby. Dr. Saad Saad says that the most common types that infect infants include:
Group B streptococcus (group B strep). If the mother is infected but not treated, the bacteria can be passed from mother to newborn during labor and childbirth.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) can also be spread from mother to baby during labor and birth. E. coli infection is generally acquired when eating contaminated food.
Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), which are spread through coughing and sneezing.
Listeria monocytogenes, which is spread via contaminated food. If the mother eats contaminated food, during pregnancy her fetus can be infected with listeria.
Neisseria meningitidis, which is spread through saliva.
Treating meningitis in babies
Both bacterial and viral meningitis require prompt medical attention, according to Dr. Saad Saad.
Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial meningitis and are typically given intravenously through an IV. Most infants who receive prompt antibiotic treatment will recover completely. However, nearly 20 percent of babies may be left with lifelong effects including learning disabilities, hearing problems, seizures, and paralysis.
Viral meningitis is typically not as serious as bacterial meningitis (except for HSV in newborns), and many infants will recover completely without complications. Viral meningitis will not respond to antibiotics. However, in order to make a full recovery the infant will require monitoring, extra hydration with IV fluids, pain relief, and rest.
Dr. Saad Saad lists Vaccines For Prevention
Meningitis is easily spread from person to person. While the spread can’t be completely prevented, specific precautions can significantly reduce the risk of infecting an infant.
Dr. Saad Saad advises parents that Infants should receive vaccines on a schedule set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A doctor can inform parents about this schedule.
Vaccines will not prevent all meningitis cases, but they do offer protection against several types of serious bacterial and viral meningitis. This will greatly cut the risk of an infant getting the disease.
- Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) vaccine. Hib bacteria was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis. Today, Hib infection has decreased considerably due to the vaccine.
The Hib vaccine is given when the infant is 2, 4, and 6 months old, and again between 12 and 15 months old. Hib vaccine will be given either alone or in a combination vaccine.
- Pneumococcal vaccine. Pneumococcus bacteria can cause meningitis, pneumonia, as well as other serious infections. The pneumococcal vaccine is given at 2, 4, and 6 months old, with a final dose between 12 and 15 months old.
Children with certain medical conditions may get an additional dose between 2 and 5 years old.
- Meningococcal vaccine. The most common type of meningococcal vaccine is the meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4). This vaccine is usually not given to infants, but to children 11 years old and older.
The MMR vaccine protects against measles, mumps, and rubella. Mumps was commonly a cause of viral meningitis, especially in infants and children, before this vaccine was available. Measles can also cause meningitis.
The MMR vaccine is given to infants at 12 to 15 months of age and again at 4 through 6 years of age.
At home, parents can take steps to protect their infants from meningitis. When preparing milk bottles, practice good hygiene by carefully washing and sterilizing bottles. Boiling, chemical sterilizers, electric sterilizers, and microwave-steaming are all effective in raising the temperature high enough to kill bacteria.
Dr. Saad Saad on Protecting Infants from social contact
Newborns have not yet received all their vaccines, and their immune systems are not yet fully developed. Therefore, Dr. Saad Saad advises parents to avoid people and places where the infant may be exposed to high levels of germs.
These are helpful tips:
- People with cold sores – or who often get cold sores – should avoid kissing babies.
- Keep babies away from anyone who is sick or coughing, sneezing, or not feeling well.
- Keep the baby away from large crowds.
- Wash hands before preparing the infant’s food or bottles.
- Ask people to wash their hands before holding the baby.
Get tested for Group B strep: Every pregnant woman should get a group B strep test between 35 and 37 weeks of pregnancy. Any mother who tests positive for group B strep should receive antibiotics during labor. This will prevent the infection from spreading to the baby.
Protect baby from mosquitoes: Babies should be kept indoors when mosquitoes are active. This is typically from dusk to dawn. If the baby must be outside, dress in long sleeves and long pants. Also, ask a pediatrician about safe mosquito repellants.
Protect baby from cigarette smoke: Exposure to cigarette smoke may increase the infant’s risk of getting viral or bacterial illnesses, including meningitis.
Watch for symptoms
Because it is impossible to provide 100% protection for your infant, every parent must watch for meningitis symptoms. Fever, extreme fussiness (without obvious cause), excessive sleepiness, or a rash should be checked by a doctor immediately, Dr. Saad Saad emphasizes.
About Dr. Saad Saad
Dr. Saad Saad, now retired, served as Surgeon-in-Chief and the Co-Medical Director of K Hovnanian Children Hospital at Hackensack Meridian Health Care System in New Jersey for most of his career. Dr. Saad is a pediatric surgeon who served the Saudi Royal family in the 1980s. Over his 40-year-career, Dr. Saad performed complex pediatric surgeries on patients both inside and outside of his community. He holds the patents for both of his medical inventions, the newly designed catheter and the suction endoscope.