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Viral Meningitis

What is viral meningitis?

Viral meningitis is an infection of the brain and spinal cord. The membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord become inflamed and infected. These membranes are called the meninges.

Viral meningitis is also called aseptic meningitis.

How does it occur?

Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis. Many different viruses can cause it. Examples are enteroviruses, herpes viruses, and the mumps virus.

You can get viral meningitis from someone who is infected the same way you get other viral infections, like colds. This can happen by:

  • shaking hands with an infected person
  • touching something an infected person has touched and then rubbing your nose, mouth, or eyes
  • sharing drinking glasses
  • 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 are not the same for everyone. The most common symptoms are:

  • fever
  • severe headache
  • stiff neck
  • being sensitive to bright lights
  • drowsiness or confusion
  • nausea and vomiting.

The early symptoms of viral meningitis are often the same as the symptoms caused by bacterial meningitis. When meningitis is caused by a virus, it is serious but rarely fatal. On the other hand, when meningitis is caused by bacteria, it can cause serious problems. Bacterial meningitis can be fatal if it is not treated right away. If you think you may have meningitis, see your healthcare provider or go to an emergency room right away.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. You may have the following tests:

  • spinal tap
  • blood tests
  • CT scan of the brain.

When you have a spinal tap, fluid is drawn from the spinal column with a needle and sent to the lab for tests.

How is it treated?

There is no specific treatment for viral meningitis. Most people recover without any treatment other than drinking extra fluids and getting plenty of rest. Your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine to relieve fever and headache. You may need to stay at the hospital so you can be closely observed. The most important part of treatment is proper diagnosis to make sure that the infection is viral and not bacterial.

How long do the effects last?

Usually the symptoms of viral meningitis last 5 to 14 days and you recover completely.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Follow your healthcare provider's instructions for taking care of yourself at home.
  • Ask your provider what medicine you should use for fever, headache, and muscle aches.
  • Rest in bed to help treat the headache. Avoid light and rest your eyes.
  • As your appetite comes back, eat foods that are easy to chew and digest.
  • If you have had a fever, remember to drink liquids to replace the fluids lost from sweating.
  • Contact your healthcare provider right away if:
    • Your symptoms (fever, headache, neck stiffness, nausea, vomiting) don’t get better or they get worse.
    • You have new symptoms.

What can I do to help prevent viral meningitis?

If you are in contact with someone who has any viral infection, including viral meningitis, the most effective method of prevention is to wash your hands thoroughly and often with warm water and soap.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-11-13
Last reviewed: 2010-10-01
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.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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