Lahey Health is now part of Beth Israel Lahey Health

by Alan R

Definition

Meningitis is swelling and inflammation of layers that surround the brain and spine. It can lead to a series of symptoms. Viral meningitis is caused by a virus. It is often less serious than bacterial meningitis.

The Spinal Cord and Meninges
Nucleus factsheet image
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes

Viral meningitis is caused by a virus. Examples of viruses linked to meningitis include:

Viruses spread from person to person in different ways. Some may be released in air with coughs or sneezes. Others may spread through contact with infected fluids or mosquito bites. Contact with someone who has viral meningitis is not likely to result in meningitis.

Risk Factors

Viral meningitis is more common in children under 5 years old. Factors that may increase the chance of an infection include:

  • Conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV
  • Treatments that weaken the immune system
  • Crowded, unsanitary conditions
  • Season—summer and early fall in areas with mild climates

Symptoms

Symptoms of viral meningitis include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff or sore neck
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • Sleepiness

Symptoms in newborns and infants include:

  • Inactivity
  • Fever—especially unexplained high fever
  • Irritability
  • Vomiting
  • Feeding poorly or refusing to eat
  • Tautness or bulging of soft spots between skull bones
  • Difficulty awakening

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. A sample of fluid around the spine and brain will be taken and tested. It will confirm meningitis. Blood, urine, sputum, and spinal fluid may also be tested. It will help to confirm the infection is caused by a virus instead of bacteria.

Images of the brain, spine, and skull may be taken with:

Treatment

Most viral infections will pass on their own in 7 to 10 days. Treatment will help to ease symptoms. Steps may include:

  • Fluids—may be given by IV if vomiting is severe
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
    • Note : Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.

Prevention

Once you have a virus there are no steps to prevent meningitis. To reduce your chance of common viral infections:

  • Wash your hands often. It is very important after using bathroom or changing diapers.
  • Surfaces or objects that are touched often should be cleaned on a regular basis.
  • Be sure all of your vaccinations are up-to-date.
  • Take steps to avoid mosquito bites. Be aware of outbreaks of mosquito-related illnesses in your area.
  • Use proper care when cleaning rat or mouse feces or nesting.

RESOURCES

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  http://www.cdc.gov 

Meningitis Foundation of America  https://mfa.nationbuilder.com 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Health Canada  http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca 

Public Health Agency of Canada  http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca 

References

Enteroviral meningitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:  https://www.dynamed.com/condition/enteroviral-meningitis  . Updated July 15, 2019. Accessed September 13, 2019.

Viral meningitis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/viral.html. Updated August 6, 2019. Accessed September 13, 2019.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board David Horn, MD
  • Review Date: 09/2019
  • Update Date: 09/13/2019