What is viral meningitis?

Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis. It is the inflammation of the tissue that covers the spinal cord and the brain. Viral meningitis is less serious than bacterial meningitis, and most people will recover on their own without treatment. However, if you believe you have meningitis, you should see a doctor immediately, as some forms may be more severe than others.

What causes viral meningitis?

Non-polio enteroviruses are the most common cause of viral meningitis in the U.S. Only a few people with enterovirus infections will get viral meningitis. Other causes of viral meningitis include:

  • Mumps virus
  • Herpes viruses
  • Measles virus
  • Influenza virus
  • Arboviruses
  • Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus

How does viral meningitis spread?

If you come into contact with somebody who has viral meningitis, you can catch the virus that made them sick. However, it is unlikely that you will get viral meningitis from that virus.

Different viruses spread in different ways:

  • Non-polio enteroviruses: Infection can occur through close contact with an infected person, touching objects with the virus on them and then touching your face with dirty hands, changing a diaper and then touching your face with dirty hands, and drinking water with the virus in it.
  • Mumps virus: Infection can spread through coughing, sneezing, talking, sharing eating utensils or other personal items, and touching an infected object.
  • Herpes viruses: Infection can occur through sexual contact, blood transfusions, organ transplants, and by sharing personal items such as toothbrushes.
  • Measles virus: Infection can spread through coughing, sneezing, and touching a contaminated surface.
  • Influenza virus: Infection can occur through sneezing, coughing, talking, touching an infected surface, or sharing personal items.
  • Arboviruses: Infection is spread through mosquitoes and other insects.
  • Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis: Infection occurs through contact or exposure to urine, droppings, saliva, or nesting materials from an infected rodent.

What are the symptoms of viral meningitis?

Most people will recover from viral meningitis in 7-10 days.   If you believe that you or your child has meningitis, visit your doctor immediately, as some forms of meningitis can be severe.

Symptoms in babies include:

  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Poor eating
  • Sleepiness
  • Lethargy

In adults:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Sleepiness
  • Nausea
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy

Who is at risk for viral meningitis?

Anybody can get meningitis. People at higher risk include:

  • Children younger than 5 years old
  • Babies younger than 1 month old
  • People with weakened immune systems caused by disease, medication, or transplants

How is viral meningitis diagnosed?

Your doctor may test for meningitis is one or more of the following ways:

  • Swabbing your nose and/or throat
  • Swabbing your rectum
  • Blood sample
  • Spinal fluid sample
  • Stool sample

How is viral meningitis treated?

There is no specific treatment for viral meningitis. Most people will recover on their own within 7-10 days. People with meningitis due to herpes virus or influenza virus may need antiviral medications.

Some people may need to be hospitalized if their symptoms become more severe or if they are an at-risk patient.

How is viral meningitis prevented?

There is no vaccine or specific way to prevent viral meningitis. Some ways to protect yourself include:

  • Wash your hands often with warm, soapy water, especially after changing diapers, coughing, sneezing, or using the toilet
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands
  • Avoid close contact with sick people
  • Do not share personal items with sick people
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or upper arm instead of with your hands
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Prevent mosquito bites
  • Prevent rodents from entering your home
  • Stay updated on vaccines for the following viruses: Measles, Mumps, Chickenpox, Influenza

For more information on viral meningitis, click here.