What is viral meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the tissues and fluid that surround the brain and spinal cord. When a virus causes the infection, it is called viral meningitis. Many viruses can cause meningitis and most cause a mild illness that goes away without treatment. However, in rare cases, viral meningitis can cause death.
What is the cause?
Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis. Examples of viruses that cause meningitis include enteroviruses (one of the viruses that causes the common cold and stomach flu), herpes viruses, and the mumps virus.
Viruses can be inhaled from the air after someone coughs or sneezes. They can spread by:
- Shaking hands with an infected person
- Touching something an infected person has touched and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes
- Sharing eating or drinking utensils
- Having contact with bowel movements of someone who is infected–for example, by not washing your hands well after using a public restroom or after changing the diapers of an infected baby.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of viral meningitis start the same way as a more serious type of meningitis caused by bacteria. The most common symptoms are fever, headache, and stiff neck. Your neck may be so stiff that you can’t touch your chin to your chest. If you have these symptoms, it is very important to get medical care right away.
Other symptoms may include:
- Being sensitive to bright lights
- Drowsiness or confusion
- Nausea and vomiting
How is it diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you.
It is very important to determine that it is a virus and not bacteria that is causing the meningitis. Tests may include:
- Lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, which uses a needle to get a sample of fluid from the area around the spinal cord
- Blood tests
- CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the brain
- MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the brain
How is it treated?
There is no medicine that will cure viral meningitis. Usually you can treat your symptoms at home. Most people recover without any treatment other than drinking extra fluids, controlling the fever, and getting plenty of rest. Usually the symptoms of viral meningitis last 5 to 14 days and you recover completely.
How can I take care of myself?
Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink a lot of clear liquids. Water, broth, juice, oral rehydration solutions (available at most grocery and drugstores), and noncaffeinated drinks are best. One way to tell if you are drinking enough liquid is to look at the color of your urine. It should be very light yellow.
- Consider taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve headaches and muscle aches and to lower a fever. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
- Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you donâ€™t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
Ask your provider:
- How long it will take to recover
- If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
- How to take care of yourself at home
- What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.
How can I help prevent viral meningitis?
To prevent spread of viral meningitis to others:
- Wash your hands often and especially after using the restroom, coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. Also wash your hands before eating or touching your eyes.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you donâ€™t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve instead of your hands.
- Use paper cups, or separate cups, and paper towels in bathrooms instead of shared drinking cups and hand towels.
- Donâ€™t share food or eating and drinking utensils with others.
- Keep surfaces clean–especially bedside tables, surfaces in the bathroom, and toys for children. Some viruses and bacteria can live 2 hours or more on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, and desks. Wipe them down with a household disinfectant according to directions on the label.
- Donâ€™t go to work or school while sick. Avoid contact with other people except to get medical care.
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This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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