What is viral meningitis?
Viral meningitis (aseptic meningitis, nonbacterial meningitis) is an inflammation of the thin lining covering the brain and spinal cord called the meninges. Infectious meningitis may be caused by bacteria, fungi or viruses. Viral meningitis, the most common form of meningitis, is caused by an infection with one of several types of viruses.
- What are the symptoms?
The most common symptoms are fever, severe headache, stiff neck, bright lights hurting the eyes, drowsiness or confusion, nausea and vomiting. These symptoms are often difficult to identify in infants, who may become irritable, lethargic, inconsolable or refuse to eat.
- Is viral meningitis a serious disease?
Viral meningitis is serious but rarely fatal in persons with normal immune systems. Usually, the symptoms last from 7-10 days and the person 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.
- What causes viral meningitis?
Many different viruses can cause meningitis. About 90% of cases of viral meningitis are caused by members of a group of viruses known as enteroviruses, such as coxsackieviruses and echoviruses. These viruses are more common during summer and fall months. Herpesviruses and the mumps virus can also cause viral meningitis.
- How is viral meningitis treated?No specific treatment for viral meningitis exists at this time. Most patients completely recover on their own. Doctors often will recommend bed rest, plenty of fluids and medicine to relieve fever and headache
- How is the virus spread?
Enteroviruses, the most common cause of viral meningitis, are most often spread through direct contact with respiratory secretions (e.g., saliva, sputum, or nasal mucus) of an infected person. This usually happens by shaking hands with an infected person or touching something they have handled, and then rubbing your own nose, mouth or eyes. The virus can also be found in the stool of persons who are infected. 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. The incubation period for enteroviruses is usually between 3-7 days from the time you are infected until you develop symptoms. You can usually spread the virus to someone else beginning about 3 days after you are infected until about 10 days after you develop symptoms.
- Can I get viral meningitis if I’m around someone who has it?
The viruses that cause viral meningitis are contagious. Enteroviruses, for example, are very common during the summer and early fall, and many people are exposed to them. However, most infected persons either have no symptoms or develop only a cold or rash with low-grade fever. Typically, less than 1 of every 1,000 persons infected actually develop meningitis. Therefore, if you are around someone who has viral meningitis, you have a moderate chance of becoming infected, but a very small chance of developing meningitis.
- How can I reduce my chances of becoming infected?
Because most persons who are infected with enteroviruses do not become sick, it can be difficult to prevent the spread of the virus. If you are in contact with someone who has viral meningitis, however, the most effective method of prevention is to wash your hands thoroughly and often. In institutional settings such as child care centers, washing objects and surfaces with a dilute bleach solution (made by mixing approximately 1/4-cup of bleach with 1 gallon of water) can be a very effective way to inactivate the virus.
- Should a person with viral meningitis be isolated?
Strict isolation is not necessary. Since most cases are due to enteroviruses that may be passed in the stool and possibly through respiratory secretions, people diagnosed with viral meningitis should be instructed to thoroughly wash their hands after using the toilet or blowing their noses. The infected person should also cover coughs and sneezes.