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Viral Meningitis

Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis, an inflammation of the tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord. It is often less severe than bacterial meningitis, and most people get better on their own (without treatment). However, it’s very important for anyone with symptoms of meningitis to see a healthcare provider right away because some types of meningitis can be very serious, and only a doctor can determine if you have the disease, the type of meningitis, and the best treatment, which can sometimes be lifesaving. Babies younger than 1 month old and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to have severe illness from viral meningitis.

Causes

Non-polio enteroviruses are the most common cause of viral meningitis in the United States, especially from late spring to fall when these viruses spread most often. However, only a small number of people who get infected with enteroviruses will actually develop meningitis.

Other viruses that can cause meningitis are

People at Risk

You can get viral meningitis at any age. However, some people have a higher risk of getting the disease, including

  • children younger than 5 years old, and
  • people with weakened immune systems caused by diseases, medications (such as chemotherapy), and recent organ or bone marrow transplantations.

Babies younger than 1 month old and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to have severe illness.

How it Spreads

If you have close contact with a person who has viral meningitis, you may become infected with the virus that made that person sick. However, you are not likely to develop meningitis. That’s because only a small number of people who get infected with the viruses that cause meningitis will actually develop viral meningitis.

Viruses that can cause meningitis spread in different ways. Learn more about how the following viruses spread by visiting CDC’s websites:

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Symptoms

Common symptoms in babies

  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Poor eating
  • Sleepiness or trouble waking up from sleep
  • Lethargy (a lack of energy)

Common symptoms in adults

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Sleepiness or trouble waking up from sleep
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy (a lack of energy)

Most people with viral meningitis usually get better on their own within 7 to 10 days.

Initial symptoms of viral meningitis are similar to those for bacterial meningitis. However, bacterial meningitis is usually severe and can cause serious complications, such as brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disabilities. It is very important to see a healthcare provider right away if you think you or your child might have meningitis; a doctor can determine if you have the disease, the type of meningitis, and the best treatment.

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Diagnosis

Meningitis can only be diagnosed by doing specific lab tests on specimens from a person suspected of having meningitis. If your doctor thinks you might have meningitis, he or she may collect samples for testing by

  • swabbing your nose and/or throat,
  • swabbing your rectum,
  • taking some blood, or
  • drawing fluid from around your spinal cord.

You may also be asked to give a stool (poop) sample.

Treatment

In most cases, there is no specific treatment for viral meningitis. Most people who get viral meningitis completely recover on their own within 7 to 10 days. However, people with meningitis caused by certain viruses such as herpesvirus and influenza, will usually need and get better from treatment such as an antiviral medicine.

Antibiotics do not help viral infections, so they are not useful in the treatment of viral meningitis. However, antibiotics do fight bacteria, so they are very important when treating bacterial meningitis.

People who develop severe illness, or at risk for developing severe illness, such as babies, and people with weakened immune systems may need to be hospitalized.

Prevention

There are no vaccines to protect against non-polio enteroviruses, which are the most common cause of viral meningitis. You can take the following steps to help lower your chances of getting infected with non-polio enteroviruses or spreading them to other people:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after changing diapers, using the toilet, or coughing or blowing your nose.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact such as kissing, hugging, or sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve, not your hands.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs, especially if someone is sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.

Some vaccinations can protect against diseases such as measles, mumps, chickenpox, and influenza, that can lead to viral meningitis. Make sure you and your child are vaccinated on schedule.

Avoid bites from mosquitoes and other insects that carry diseases that can infect humans.

Control mice and rats. If you have a rodent in and/or around your home, follow the cleaning and control precautions listed on CDC’s website about lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus.

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