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.
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:
Viruses can also enter the body through foods, drinks, or insect or animal bites.
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.
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:
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.
You can help your child at home by following these home care instructions:
Encourage your child to drink fluids. This will help replace fluids that may be lost from sweating when your child has a fever.
Your child may need acetaminophen or ibuprofen for headaches and body aches.
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:
Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.
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.
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:
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.)