Viral Meningitis

What is viral meningitis?

Viral meningitis is a viral infection of the meninges (the membranes around the brain and spinal cord). There are many possible viruses that can cause this infection and many of these viruses are very common. Viral meningitis is most common in newborns and young children. Symptoms of viral meningitis include headache, nausea, vomiting, irritability, loss of appetite and drowsiness. Although older children and adults often do not require any specific treatment for viral meningitis, newborns and infants may need anti-viral medications. Newborns and infants have a higher risk of complications following an episode of viral meningitis. Vaccinations and good hygiene can help to prevent some cases of viral meningitis.

Risks

Viral meningitis is the most common cause of meningitis. It most commonly affects newborns, infants and children, although it can affect people of any age. Many common viruses can cause viral meningitis, including influenza, herpes virus and hand-foot-mouth disease. Less common viral causes are mumps, measles, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), polio virus and West Nile virus, though there are many more. Children who are not fully vaccinated may be at higher risk of viral meningitis. Newborns and infants who are in contact with people with viral infections are also at increased risk of this condition.

Symptoms

The typical symptoms of this condition include headache, neck stiffness, fever, nausea and vomiting. Newborns and infants may have a loss of appetite, may cry or be unusually irritable or may be drowsy. Viral infections may also cause symptoms of infection in other parts of the body at the same time, such as a rash or shortness of breath.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is based on the symptoms, the physical examination and testing a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid in the meninges around the brain and spine) for signs of meningitis in the meninges and to exclude the possibility of a bacterial infection. This test is also used to identify the specific virus causing the infection.

Treatment

In older children and adults, no specific treatment is needed in most cases. These people should take treatment for their symptoms. Acetaminophen (paracetamol) might be helpful in treating headaches, and these people should also take plenty of fluids. Newborns and small infants, or people with signs of a complication, may require anti-viral medication to fight the virus causing the infection.

Prevention

Some common causes of viral meningitis are vaccine preventable. Keeping to the recommended vaccination schedule can help prevent some cases of meningitis. Good hygiene, such as washing hands, can also help to avoid viral meningitis.

Other names for viral meningitis

  • Aseptic meningitis in adults