When my friend's 4-week-old baby developed a fever, the hospital did blood tests and a spinal tap to see if she had meningitis. This upset my friend a lot. Was it really necessary?
Yes. Meningitis is an infection and inflammation of the meninges, the lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. The proximity of these membranes to the brain makes this condition potentially very dangerous: It can cause serious residual damage and, rarely, death.
Because evaluating a fever in a very young baby is difficult, most doctors agree that the safest approach is to assume the worst and perform a spinal tap. The procedure involves inserting a needle between two vertebrae to withdraw fluid for evaluation. While it's understandably upsetting to the baby and her parents, it is safe.
To be cautious, I usually treat my patients with antibiotics until the results of the spinal tap are known.