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Viral Meningitis

What is viral meningitis?

Viral meningitis is inflammation of the lining that surrounds and protects your brain and spinal cord. The inflammation is caused by a viral infection and can be life-threatening. Viral meningitis is also called aseptic meningitis.

What causes viral meningitis?

Viral meningitis is caused by viruses found in sputum (spit), blood, nose drainage, and bowel movements. The virus is spread from an infected person to another by coughing, kissing, or sharing food or drinks. You may also get a type of viral meningitis if you are bitten by a mosquito that carries the West Nile virus. Ask caregivers for more information about how to prevent West Nile virus.

What are the signs and symptoms of viral meningitis?

It may only take a few hours to a few days to have the following signs and symptoms:

  • High fever and chills

  • Stiff neck or neck pain

  • Severe headache

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Red or purple rash

  • Eye pain when you look into bright lights

  • Sleepiness or confusion

How is viral meningitis diagnosed?

  • Blood tests: You may need blood taken to give caregivers information about how your body is working. The blood may be taken from your hand, arm, or IV.

  • A CT , or CAT scan, takes pictures of your skull and brain. You may be given contrast liquid before the scan. Tell a healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.

  • Lumbar puncture: This procedure may also be called a spinal tap. During a lumbar puncture, you will need to lie very still. Caregivers may give you medicine to make you lose feeling in a small area of your back. Caregivers will clean this area of your back. A needle will be put in, and fluid removed from around your spinal cord. The fluid will be sent to a lab for tests. The tests check for infection, bleeding around your brain and spinal cord, or other problems. Sometimes medicine may be put into your back to treat your illness.

  • An MRI of the head takes pictures of your brain, blood vessels, and skull. You may be given contrast liquid to help the pictures show up better. Tell a healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell a healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.

  • Throat and stool cultures: A swab of your throat or a bowel movement sample may be collected to learn what virus is causing your symptoms.

How is viral meningitis treated?

  • Fever medicine: This medicine lowers your temperature. Common medicines used to lower temperature include acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

  • Anticonvulsant medicine: This medicine is given to control seizures. Take this medicine exactly as directed.

  • Rest: You should rest as much as possible. A dark, quiet room is best if you have headaches.

How can I help prevent viral meningitis?

  • Clean surfaces with soap and water. Disinfect with a solution that has water and chlorine-containing bleach.

  • Completely heat chilled foods before you eat or serve them.

  • Discard tissue after you wipe or blow your nose.

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.

  • Do not share food or drinks.

  • Certain illnesses caused by a virus, such as the mumps, can lead to viral meningitis. By taking steps to help prevent these illnesses, you can also help prevent viral meningitis. Make sure you have had the following vaccinations:

    • Influenza vaccine helps prevent influenza (flu). Everyone older than 6 months should get a yearly influenza vaccine. Get the vaccine as soon as it is available, usually in October or November each year.

    • MMR vaccine helps prevent measles, mumps, and rubella. Children 1 year or older need 2 doses. Doses are usually given between 12 and 15 months and again between 4 and 6 years.

    • Varicella vaccine helps prevent chickenpox (varicella) infection. Children usually get 2 doses. The first dose is usually given at 12 to 15 months. The second dose is usually given at 4 to 6 years. Any older child who is not fully vaccinated may need 1 dose. Any older child who is not vaccinated and has never had chickenpox should receive the vaccine.

    • Polio vaccine (IPV) helps prevent polio. IPV is also called inactivated polio vaccine. Infants and children usually get 4 doses of IPV. The vaccine is usually given at 2 months, 4 months, 6 to 18 months, and 4 to 6 years. The vaccine may be given as early as 6 weeks of age.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.

  • You think someone in your family has viral meningitis.

  • You have a hard time hearing.

  • Your vision changes.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You are hard to wake. Tell someone to call 911 if it becomes hard to wake you.

  • You have a headache and stiff neck.

  • You cannot see.

  • You are confused.

  • You have a seizure.

  • You have a new red or purple rash.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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