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Symptoms of Viral Meningitis in a Child
Q: A child in my daughter's daycare program has viral meningitis. My daughter has a runny nose, cries constantly, and is extremely irritable. Could she have contracted the illness?
A: If you believe your child has meningitis, you should call your pediatrician right away. Unfortunately, the signs and symptoms for meningitis are not always the same with every child and an infant's symptoms can be particularly difficult to identify. Having said that, some signs and symptoms of meningitis may include fever, fretfulness, vomiting, tiredness, irritability, lack of interest in playing, difficulty in being awakened, or refusing to eat. As an example, when an infant normally isn't feeling well, she may be comforted when her mother picks her up or rocks her. This usually isn't the case if a child has meningitis.
Meningitis is an illness that produces inflammation (swelling) of the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord. Viral meningitis is more common and less severe than bacterial meningitis. Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for viral meningitis. As with any cold or flu, your child should rest and stay well hydrated. It may take a while for a child with viral meningitis to get better, but most do tend to recover completely.
The viruses that cause meningitis are contagious (spread from one person to the next through direct contact). They can spread quickly in a childcare center because children use common toys and surfaces, and this means they are sharing saliva and nasal mucus where the viruses may be. The viruses can also be found in the stool, where they are commonly spread among small children who are not yet toilet trained. Your child's center can limit the spread of viruses by encouraging vigorous hand washing for all the children and employees.
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Henry Bernstein, M.D., is currently the associate chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital, Boston. He also has an academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.