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Viral Meningitis In Children

What is viral meningitis?

Viral meningitis is inflammation of the lining that surrounds and protects your child's 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. Your child may also get a type of viral meningitis if he is 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 any of 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 your child looks into bright lights
  • Sleepiness or confusion

How is viral meningitis diagnosed?

  • Blood tests: Your child may need blood tests to give caregivers information about how his body is working. The blood may be taken from your child's arm, hand, finger, foot, heel, or IV.
  • A CT , or CAT scan, takes pictures of your child's body. Your child may be given contrast liquid before the scan. Tell a healthcare provider if your child has ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.
  • Lumbar puncture: This procedure may also be called a spinal tap. A small needle is placed into your child's lower back. Fluid will be removed from around your child's spinal cord and sent to the lab for tests. The test is done to check for bleeding around your child's brain and spinal cord, and for infection. This procedure may also be done to take pressure off your child's brain and spinal cord, or to give medicine. Your child may need to be held in place so that he does not move during the procedure.

  • MRI: An MRI uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to take pictures of the inside of your child's body. Caregivers may use the MRI to look at your child's brain, muscles, joints, bones, or blood vessels. Your child will need to lie still during his test. Never enter the MRI room with any metal objects. This can cause serious injury.
  • Throat and bowel movement cultures: A swab of your child's throat or a bowel movement sample may be collected to learn what virus is causing his symptoms.

How is viral meningitis treated?

  • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen: These medicines are given to decrease your child's pain and fever. They can be bought without a doctor's order. Ask how much medicine is safe to give your child, and how often to give it.
  • Anticonvulsant medicine: Anticonvulsants are given to control your child's seizures.
  • Rest: Your child should rest as much as possible. Have your child rest in a dark, quiet room if he has headaches.

What medical problems can viral meningitis cause?

  • Seizure
  • Hearing loss
  • Blindness
  • Heart, kidney, or adrenal gland diseases
  • Coma

How can viral meningitis be prevented?

  • Clean surfaces with soap and water. Disinfect them with a solution that has water and chlorine bleach.
  • Completely heat chilled foods before you serve them to your child.
  • Make sure your child discards tissue after he wipes or blows his nose.
  • Have your child wash his hands often with soap and water.
  • Do not let your child share food or drinks.
  • Certain illnesses caused by a virus, such as the mumps, can lead to viral meningitis. You can help prevent viral meningitis when you also prevent these illnesses. Have your child get the following vaccines:
    • 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.

Where can I get more information?

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
    1600 Clifton Road
    Atlanta , GA 30333
    Phone: 1- 800 - 232-4636
    Web Address:
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
    NIAID Office of Communications & Government Relations
    5601 Fishers Lane, MSC 9806
    Bethesda, MD 20892-9806
    For deliveries, use Rockville, MD 20852
    Phone: 1- 301 - 496-5717
    Phone: 1- 866 - 284-4107
    Web Address:

When should I contact my child's caregiver?

  • Your child has a fever.
  • Your child is more fussy or sleepy than usual.
  • You think someone in your family has viral meningitis.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition, medicine, or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • Your child is hard to wake.
  • Your child has a headache and stiff neck.
  • Your child is confused.
  • Your child has a seizure.
  • Your child has a red or purple rash.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's caregivers to decide what care you want for your child. 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.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.