About Viral Meningitis

Key points

  • Meningitis is an inflammation (swelling) of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.
  • A bacterial or viral infection can cause the swelling.
  • Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis.
  • Most people get better on their own without treatment, but it can be very serious.
Mumps virus, one viral cause of meningitis.

What it is

Many viruses can cause meningitis. Leading U.S. causes include:

Herpesviruses include:


People with viral meningitis usually start having typical meningitis symptoms.

When to seek emergency care‎

Anyone with symptoms of meningitis should see a healthcare provider right away. A healthcare provider can determine if you have meningitis, what's causing it, and the best treatment.

Risk factors

Anyone can get viral meningitis; however, the following factors can increase someone's risk.


Children younger than 5 years old are at increased risk for viral meningitis.

Babies younger than 1 month old are most likely to have severe illness if they get viral meningitis.

Medical conditions

People with a weakened immune system are at increased risk for getting viral meningitis and having severe illness. Diseases, some medications (such as chemotherapy), and recent organ or bone marrow transplantations can weaken the immune system.

Close contacts aren't likely to develop meningitis‎

Close contacts of someone with viral meningitis can become infected with the virus that made that person sick. They aren't likely to develop meningitis though.

How it spreads

The table below summarizes the most common ways these viruses spread. Visit specific CDC websites for more detailed information.

Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus
  • Spread through specific animal exposures, including bites, urine, or feces
Epstein-Barr virus
Mumps virus
Non-polio enteroviruses
  • Spread by sharing respiratory or throat secretions (saliva or spit) through close contact
  • Spread by items contaminated with those secretions
Influenza virus
Measles virus
Varicella-zoster virus
  • Spread through coughing, sneezing, or talking
  • Don't require close contact
Varicella-zoster viruses
  • Spread through contact with fluid from blisters
Non-polio enteroviruses
  • Spread through contact with other body secretions (feces, nasal mucus)
  • Spread by items contaminated with those secretions (diapers


Limit virus exposure and spread

Many daily healthy habits can help prevent viral infections:

  • Wash your hands often, especially after changing diapers or using the toilet
  • Avoid close contact, such as touching and shaking hands, with people who are sick
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
  • Stay home when sick and keep sick children out of school
Keep Reading: About Handwashing


Vaccines can protect against some diseases that can lead to viral meningitis:

Other prevention tips

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

Avoid contact with wild mice. Take precautions when handling pet rodents like mice, hamsters, or guinea pigs.

Testing and diagnosis

There are laboratory tests for meningitis.

Treatment and recovery

In most cases, there's no specific treatment for viral meningitis. Most people with mild viral meningitis usually get better on their own within 7 to 10 days.

People who develop severe illness, or are at risk for developing severe illness, may need hospital care.

Antiviral medicines

Antiviral medicine may help people with meningitis caused by viruses such as herpesvirus and influenza.