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Meningitis, Viral

What is viral meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the tissues and fluid that surround the brain and spinal cord. When a virus is causing the infection, it is called viral meningitis.

What is the cause?

Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis. Many different viruses can cause it.

Viruses causing meningitis spread the same way other viruses spread, like cold viruses. Viruses can be inhaled from the air after someone coughs or sneezes. They can spread by:

  • Shaking hands with an infected person
  • Touching something an infected person has touched and then rubbing the nose, mouth, or eyes
  • Sharing drinking glasses
  • Having contact with bowel movements of another child who is infected--for example, by being touched by someone who has changed the diapers of an infected baby and then not washed their hands well

Viruses can also enter the body through foods, drinks, or insect or animal bites.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may develop quickly (over hours) or may take days to develop. Children with meningitis have symptoms of fever, headache, and a stiff neck. They may also have nausea, vomiting, and a worse headache when they are in a lighted area. Sometimes babies with meningitis have a bulging soft spot, irritable cry, and seizures. Meningitis can seem a lot like a bad case of the flu.

How is it diagnosed?

It is very important to determine that it is a virus and not bacteria that is causing the meningitis. Bacterial meningitis can be life threatening and must be treated in the hospital, but viral meningitis usually gets better without special treatment.

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history. Your provider will examine your child.

Tests may include:

  • Test of fluid drawn from the spine with a needle (called a spinal tap or lumbar puncture)
  • Blood tests
  • CT or MRI scan of the brain

How is it treated?

Children with viral meningitis can usually be treated at home. There is no medicine that will cure viral meningitis. Your child will eventually get better on his or her own.

How can I help take care of my child?

You can help your child at home by following these home care instructions:

  • Fluids

    Encourage your child to drink fluids. This will help replace fluids that may be lost from sweating when your child has a fever.

  • Pain Control

    Your child may need acetaminophen or ibuprofen for headaches and body aches.

    • Check with your healthcare provider before you give any medicine that contains aspirin or salicylates to a child or teen. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto-Bismol. Children and teens who take aspirin are at risk for a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days.
  • Rest

    Your child may feel better if he or she lies down in a quiet place with dim lighting.

Follow your child’s healthcare provider's instructions. Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
  • How long it will take for your child to recover
  • What activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to normal activities
  • How to take care of your child at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them

Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.

How long will the effects last?

Children with viral meningitis usually recover without any problems. Since different viruses can cause the illness, the length of time it takes a child to feel better can vary from 2 days to 2 weeks. Headaches may last from 1 to 2 weeks. You should notice a gradual improvement.

How can I help prevent viral meningitis?

The virus causing meningitis can be passed from person to person. The length of time your child will be contagious can be anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks, depending on the virus. To lower the chance of spreading the virus to another person:

  • Wash your child's hands often.
  • Wash your hands often and make sure anyone who has contact with your child does the same.
  • Do not share cups or utensils.
  • Avoid contact with saliva, such as by kissing a child.

Your child’s healthcare provider will let you know when your child is no longer contagious and can return to normal activities.

There is no vaccine to prevent viral meningitis. (There are vaccines to help prevent bacterial meningitis.)

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-06-29
Last reviewed: 2012-06-11
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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