Meningitis. The word alone sets off alarm bells. Every parent has heard of it, the big fear is hearing it when it’s associated with your own child. Most of us have a general idea of the signs, but in actuality they are so closely related to flu like symptoms, even doctors can sometimes miss-diagnosis it.  Unfortunately that’s what happened when we brought Clae into the emergency department that evening. They have told us since, that had he contracted it during the summer months, when the flu isn’t a common ailment, they may have caught it in time.  But instead a bad judgment call on the doctor’s behalf sent us home with only pedialyte to re-hydrate him. But doctors are human, they can make mistakes just like you or me.

Meningitis was once quite common, but now because of all of the immunization vaccines available to help prevent a number of the more common strains, it is not seen as often. The downfall to this however, is that Doctors are more likely to dismiss the symptoms for the flu.  That’s why now more than ever, parents should be aware of what the signs are, and more importantly that they wont necessarily all be present.  If you’re instincts are working in overdrive… maybe there is a reason for it.

One of the things that I remember learning about meningitis, before Clae contracted it was that a rash could develop. Clae never got one.  Clae vomited a lot without accompanying diaerreah. Was very lethargic and was annoyed by our touching him. That was all. Being winter, even Paul and I thought it was probably just the flu. Even though every instinct we had was telling us it was more, but then again, he’d never been sick before. When we brought him into the emergency department in the middle of the night they gave us pedialyte to give him every 10 minutes for an hour, to see if there would be any change. The doctor decided after an hour, that he was probably still lethargic because it was so late and it was well past his bedtime. Although, sadly, that wasn’t the case in the end.

The only test available to positively diagnosis meningitis is the lumbar puncture, or spinal tap. This will only be given if the doctors are not convinced the symptoms are just the flu because of some of the complications that can arise from the procedure. A needle performs the lumbar puncture, and fluid surrounding (not in) the spinal cord is withdrawn and is examined in a laboratory for infection.  Doctors can usually tell immediately if meningitis is present because the normally clear fluid will be cloudy. If they suspect meningitis at this point they will start antibiotics immediately even though they wont know the strain until the laboratory results are back.  It can either be viral or bacterial strains.  Viral meningitis is more common, but far less severe than bacterial meningitis and something that antibiotics cannot help. Most cases of viral meningitis are resolved within 1-2 weeks but because there are no medications to fight the infection treatment is usually aimed at relieving the symptoms.  It is crucial however, to catch bacterial meningitis in the early stages and start antibiotics immediately because it is so life threatening. Those that do receive prompt attention can recover fully but others can have an increased chance of ongoing neurological problems, learning disabilities, hearing or visual impairment, or death. Clae was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis on our second trip back to emergency, unfortunately too late.

So let’s look at what the symptoms are so hopefully you can spot this deadly infection before it’s to late. Remember not all of the many symptoms below will be present, Clae only had a few of them:

  •  Lethargy or wanting to go lay down
  • Vomiting
  • Possible Diarrhea
  •  Rash
  • Fever
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • Possible seizure activity

Now lets look at some added symptoms an infant or toddler can have. Some of the symptoms above, like a headache can’t really be determined because an infant can’t tell you their head hurts.

  • Soft spot can be bulged or pulsating
    * toddlers don’t have soft spots anymore so this wont be an indicator for them
  • Refusal to eat
  • More irritable when picked up instead of soothing them
  • Extreme shivering
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Pinprick rash or bruises anywhere on the body
  • Unusual breathing
  • Too sleepy to wake up
  • Stiff and jerky movements or floppy and lifeless

So that’s a lot of symptoms, unfortunately they look a lot like the flu, and I’ve had a lot of those symptoms myself when I’ve had a migraine. Meningitis can be a deadly infection if not caught right away, if you feel that your child could have meningitis, make sure you get them checked by a doctor immediately.  Remember though that doctors are fallible and if your instincts are going against the doctor’s diagnosis, get them to explain fully why they’ve come to the conclusion they have, so that you are comfortable with their diagnosis too. You know your child best, be comfortable with the decision. Otherwise get another opinion.