Viral Meningitis

Q: What is Viral Meningitis?

A: Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes ("meninges") that cover the brain and spinal cord. Viral infections are the most common cause of meningitis; bacterial infections are the second most common cause. Other, rarer causes of meningitis include fungi, parasites, and non-infectious causes, including those that are related to drugs.

Meningitis caused by viral infections is sometimes called "aseptic meningitis."

Q: Is Viral Meningitis a serious disease?

A: Viral ("aseptic") meningitis is serious but rarely fatal in people with normal immune systems. Usually, the symptoms last from 7 to 10 days and the patient recovers completely. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, can be very serious and result in disability or death if not treated promptly. Often, the symptoms of viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis are the same. For this reason, if you think you or your child has meningitis, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Q: What causes Viral Meningitis?

A: Different viral infections can lead to viral meningitis. But most cases in the United States, particularly during the summer and fall months, are caused by enteroviruses (which include enteroviruses, coxsackieviruses, and echoviruses). Most people who are infected with enteroviruses either have no symptoms or only get a cold, rash, or mouth sores with low-grade fever. And, only a small number of people with enterovirus infections develop meningitis.

Other viral infections that can lead to meningitis include mumps, herpesvirus (such as Epstein-Barr virus, herpes simplex viruses, and varicella-zoster virus —the cause of chickenpox and shingles), measles, and influenza.

Arboviruses, which mosquitoes and other insects spread, can also cause infections that can lead to viral meningitis. And lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, which is spread by rodents, is a rare cause of viral meningitis.

Q: What are the Signs and Symptoms of Viral Meningitis?

A: Spinal Meningitis Symptoms can appear quickly or they can also take several days to appear, usually after a cold or runny nose, diarrhea, vomiting, or other signs of infection show up. Symptoms in adults may differ from those in children:

Q: How is Viral Meningitis Diagnosed?

A: Viral meningitis is usually diagnosed by laboratory tests of a patient’s spinal fluid (from a "spinal tap"). The test can reveal whether the patient is infected with a virus or a bacterium. The exact cause of viral meningitis can sometimes be found through tests that show which virus has infected a patient; however, identifying the exact virus causing meningitis may be difficult.

Because the symptoms of viral meningitis are similar to those of bacterial meningitis, which is usually more severe and can be fatal, it is important for people suspected of having meningitis to seek medical care and have their spinal fluid tested. A hospital stay may be necessary in more severe cases or for people with weak immune systems.

Q: How is Viral Meningitis Treated?

A: There is no specific treatment for viral meningitis. Most patients completely recover on their own within 2 weeks. Antibiotics do not help viral infections, so they are not useful in the treatment of viral meningitis. Doctors often will recommend bed rest, plenty of fluids, and medicine to relieve fever and headache.

A hospital stay may be necessary in more severe cases or for people with weak immune systems.

Q: How is Viral Meningitis Spread?

A: Different viruses that cause viral meningitis are spread in different ways. Enteroviruses, the most common cause of viral meningitis, are most often spread through direct contact with an infected person’s stool. The virus is spread through this route mainly among small children who are not yet toilet trained. It can also be spread this way to adults changing the diapers of an infected infant.

Enteroviruses and other viruses (such as mumps and varicella-zoster virus) can also be spread through direct or indirect contact with respiratory secretions (saliva, sputum, or nasal mucus) of an infected person. This usually happens through kissing or shaking hands with an infected person or by touching something they have handled and then rubbing your own nose or mouth. The viruses can also stay on surfaces for days and can be transferred from objects. Viruses also can spread directly when infected people cough or sneeze and send droplets containing the virus into the air we breathe.

The time from when a person is infected until they develop symptoms (incubation period) is usually between 3 and 7 days for enteroviruses. An infected person is usually contagious from the time they develop symptoms until the symptoms go away. Young children and people with low immune systems may spread the infection even after symptoms have resolved.

children mostly at risk

People Most at Risk for Viral Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacteria (meningococcal disease) can be fatal and should always be viewed as a medical emergency. About 10% of infected people die from the disease. In non-fatal cases, those affected experience long-term disabilities, such as brain damage, loss of limb, or deafness. Preventing the disease through the use of meningococcal vaccine is important.

Although anyone can get meningitis, pre-teens and adolescents, college freshmen who live in dormitories and travelers to countries where meningitis is always present are at an increased risk for meningococcal disease. Before the availability of effective vaccines, bacterial meningitis was most commonly diagnosed in young children. Now, as a result of the protection offered by current childhood vaccines, bacterial meningitis is more commonly diagnosed among pre-teens and young adults.

Like bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis can affect anyone. But infants younger than 1 month old and people whose immune systems are weak are at higher risk for severe infection. People who are around someone with viral meningitis have a chance of becoming infected with the virus that made that person sick, but they are not likely to develop meningitis as a complication of the illness.

Q: Is Viral Meningitis Contagious?

A: If you are around someone with viral meningitis, you may be at risk of becoming infected with the virus that made them sick. But you have only a small chance of developing meningitis as a complication of the illness.

Q: How to reduce chances of becoming infected with viruses that can lead to Viral Meningitis?

A: Viral meningitis most commonly results from infection with enteroviruses. But there are other causes, such as measles, mumps, and chickenpox. Viral meningitis can also be caused by viruses that are spread by mosquitoes and other insects that bite people.

The specific measures for preventing or reducing your risk for viral meningitis depend on the cause.

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