Viral Meningitis

Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis, an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. It is often less severe than bacterial meningitis, and most people get better on their own (without treatment). However, anyone with symptoms of meningitis should see a doctor right away because some types of meningitis can be very serious. Only a doctor can determine if someone has meningitis, what is causing it, and the best treatment. 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. That is when these viruses spread most often. However, only a small number of people infected with enteroviruses will actually develop meningitis.

Other viruses that can cause meningitis are

People at Risk

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

  • Children younger than 5 years old
  • 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 also more likely to have severe illness.

How it Spreads

Close contacts of someone with viral meningitis can become infected with the virus that made that person sick. However, these close contacts are not likely to develop meningitis. 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 children and adults

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Eyes being more sensitive to light
  • Sleepiness or trouble waking up from sleep
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy (a lack of energy)

Most people with mild 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. The pathogens (germs) that cause bacterial meningitis can also be associated with another serious illness, sepsis. Sepsis is the body’s extreme response to infection. Without timely treatment, sepsis can quickly lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death.

See a doctor right away if you think you or your child might have meningitis. A doctor can determine if you have the disease, what is causing it, and the best treatment.

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Diagnosis

Doctors diagnose meningitis by ordering specific lab tests on specimens from a person suspected of having meningitis. If a doctor suspects meningitis, he or she may collect samples for testing by:

  • Swabbing your nose or throat
  • Obtaining a stool sample
  • Taking some blood
  • Drawing fluid from around your spinal cord

Treatment

In most cases, there is no specific treatment for viral meningitis. Most people who get mild viral meningitis usually recover completely in 7 to 10 days without treatment. Antiviral medicine may help people with meningitis caused by viruses such as herpesvirus and influenza.

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 are at risk for developing severe illness may need care in a hospital.

Prevention

There are no vaccines to protect against non-polio enteroviruses, which are the most common cause of viral meningitis.  The best way to help protect yourself and others from non-polio enterovirus infections is to

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, 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 you are sick and keep sick children out of school

Vaccines can protect against some diseases, such as measles, mumps, chickenpox, and influenza, which 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 or around your home, follow appropriate cleaning and control precautions.

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Page last reviewed: August 6, 2019