Meningitis is an infection of the tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord.

Meningitis can be caused by many different germs including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Viral meningitis (also called aseptic meningitis) is the most common type of meningitis.. Viral meningitis is seen most often in children and young adults, but anyone can get viral meningitis.

What causes viral meningitis?

Many different viruses can cause meningitis. About 90% of cases of viral meningitis are caused by members of a group of viruses known as enteroviruses. These viruses are more common during summer and fall months. Other causes of viral meningitis include West Nile Virus.

How is the virus spread?

Most cases of viral meningitis are caused by viruses called “enteroviruses.” These viruses can be spread by direct contact with saliva or mucus of an infected person. The virus may be spread to others by contact with feces, especially among small children who are not toilet trained and to adults who change diapers of an infected infant. West Nile Virus is spread by mosquitoes.

Can I get viral meningitis if I’m around someone who has it?

The viruses that cause viral meningitis are contagious. Enteroviruses are very common during the summer and early fall, and many people are exposed to them. Most people who are infected with enteroviruses do not become sick; therefore, it can be difficult to prevent the spread of the virus. However, most infected persons either have no symptoms or develop only a cold or rash with low-grade fever. Only a small proportion of infected persons actually develop meningitis.

Hand washing helps prevent infection. Hands should be washed with soap and water:

  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers
  • After sneezing or coughing
  • Before handling food or drink
  • Before eating.

Avoid sharing things that may have another person’s saliva on them, such as eating utensils, drinking containers, and cigarettes. In settings like child care centers, washing objects and surfaces with a dilute bleach solution (1 ½ cups of household bleach mixed with one gallon of water) can be a very effective way to destroy the virus.

Symptoms of meningitis may include:

  • Sudden headache
  • Fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Eyes sensitive to bright lights

Symptoms in infants may include irritability, refusal to eat, and difficulty waking the baby.

Symptoms usually begin within 10 days after exposure to the virus. Illness usually lasts less than 10 days. People usually recover completely without specific treatment. Meningitis due to viruses is not treated with antibiotics.

Is viral meningitis a serious disease?

In viral (“aseptic”) meningitis, the symptoms usually last from 7 to 10 days and the patient recovers completely in persons with normal immune systems. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, can be very serious and result in disability or death if not treated promptly. Often, the symptoms of viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis are the same. For this reason, if you think you or your child has meningitis, see your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor can determine if symptoms are due to meningitis and, if so, whether the meningitis is due to a virus or bacteria.

Information from Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

September 2007