Meningitis and Oxygen Therapy in Children: Advice for Parents

Posted on: 22 February 2016

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Meningitis is a serious disease that causes inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. As well as fever, drowsiness and seizures, meningitis can sometimes cause problems with breathing. If your child develops breathing problems from meningitis, your doctor may prescribe oxygen therapy. Learn more about the effects meningitis can have on a child's breathing and what to expect from oxygen therapy.

Why is oxygen therapy necessary?

Swelling in the meninges (the membranes around the brain) can interfere with a child's nervous system. When this happens, various problems can develop, including breathing or even respiratory failure. A child's healthy oxygen saturation level should normally exceed 95 percent. If the oxygen saturation level in your son or daughter dips below this, a doctor may recommend oxygen therapy.

Without treatment, low oxygen levels in the blood can lead to hypoxemia, where the body becomes starved of oxygen. Hypoxemia can cause damage to the heart or brain. Left untreated, severe hypoxemia can prove fatal. Pneumonia is also a common side effect of meningitis, and this condition also increases the risk of problems with oxygen starvation.

When will a doctor recommend oxygen therapy?

Most children with meningitis don't need oxygen therapy, and this treatment method is relatively rare. Doctors will normally only prescribe this treatment for children who are seriously ill.

The doctor may request an arterial blood gas (ABG) test. This test will measure your child's oxygen saturation level, but a pulse oximeter (clipped to the child's finger) may also be used. Other clinical observations will also play a part. For example, if the child is constantly short of breath, oxygen therapy may become more important.

What types of oxygen therapy are available?

Doctors may recommend various types of oxygen therapy. Each delivery system has pros and cons, so the medical team will carefully consider what's right for your son or daughter. Delivery methods include the following:

  • A nasal cannula, which uses a thin tube and two small nozzles that go inside the nostrils.
  • Face masks, which are available in child sizes.
  • A tracheostomy tube, which bypasses the mouth and nose and goes straight into the child's windpipe.
  • An oxygen hood or tent.

The child's age, the severity of the symptoms, and the urgency of the problem can all influence which type of therapy the doctor recommends. For example, oxygen hoods are suitable for babies who have shown signs of recovery, but still need more oxygen. Similarly, some children struggle to cope with face masks, and resistance from your son or daughter can make it difficult to successfully administer the oxygen in this way.

Are there any risks from oxygen therapy?

While your child's body relies on a healthy supply of oxygen, too much oxygen can damage the lungs. Children with secondary infections like emphysema or bronchitis are at higher risk of lung damage from excess oxygen, so your child's medical team will need to carefully check the oxygen level throughout therapy.

Oxygen therapy presents unique risks in babies. Too much oxygen in babies and young children can cause blood vessels in the eyes to grow too much. In turn, these enlarged blood vessels can ultimately lead to blindness. Because of this, doctors will carefully consider the risk of treatment before administering extra oxygen.

Some delivery methods present other risks. For example, transtracheal oxygen therapy may cause mucus balls to form on the tube inside the child's windpipe. These balls may cause coughing and discomfort, and there is also an increased risk of infection. Windpipe injuries may also occur.

Oxygen therapy can save a child's life if he or she has meningitis. Talk a specialist in pediatric respiratory care for more information and advice.