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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 causes the infection, it is called viral meningitis. Many viruses can cause meningitis and most cause a mild illness that goes away without treatment. However, in rare cases, viral meningitis can cause death.

What is the cause?

Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis. Examples of viruses that cause meningitis include enteroviruses (one of the viruses that causes the common cold and stomach flu), herpes viruses, and the mumps virus.

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 touching your nose, mouth, or eyes
  • Sharing eating or drinking utensils
  • Having contact with bowel movements of someone who is infected--for example, by not washing your hands well after using a public restroom or after changing the diapers of an infected baby.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of viral meningitis start the same way as a more serious type of meningitis caused by bacteria. The most common symptoms are fever, headache, and stiff neck. Your child’s neck may be so stiff that he can't touch his chin to his chest. If your child these symptoms, it is very important to get medical care right away.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Being sensitive to bright lights
  • Drowsiness or confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting

Sometimes babies with meningitis have a bulging soft spot, irritable cry, and seizures.

How is it diagnosed?

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

It is very important to determine that it is a virus and not bacteria that is causing the meningitis. Tests may include:

  • Lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, which uses a needle to get a sample of fluid from the area around the spinal cord
  • Blood tests
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the brain
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the brain

How is it treated?

There is no medicine that will cure viral meningitis. Usually you can treat your child’s symptoms at home. Most children recover without any treatment other than drinking extra fluids, controlling the fever, and getting plenty of rest. Usually the symptoms of viral meningitis last 5 to 14 days and your child recovers completely.

How can I take care of my child?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest.
  • Make sure your child drinks a lot of clear liquids. Water, broth, juice, or an oral rehydration solution (ORS) such as Pedialyte are best. One way to tell if your child is drinking enough liquid is to look at the color of your child’s urine. It should be very light yellow.
  • Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever and pain relief. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. Read the label and give as directed. 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. Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Read the label carefully and give your child the correct dose as directed. Do not give more doses than directed. To make sure you don’t give your child too much, check other medicines your child takes to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, your child should not take this medicine for more than 5 days.

Ask your child’s healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
  • How long it will take for your child to recover
  • If there are 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. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent viral meningitis?

To prevent spread of viral meningitis to others:

  • Teach your child to wash his hands often and especially after using the restroom, coughing, sneezing, or blowing his nose. Your child should also wash his hands before eating or touching his eyes.
  • Teach your child to cover his nose and mouth with a tissue when he coughs or sneezes. If he doesn’t have a tissue, teach your child to cough or sneeze into his upper sleeve instead of his hands.
  • Use paper cups, or separate cups, and paper towels in bathrooms instead of shared drinking cups and hand towels.
  • Don’t share food and eating or drinking utensils with others.
  • Keep surfaces clean--especially bedside tables, surfaces in the bathroom, and toys for children. Some viruses and bacteria can live 2 hours or more on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, and desks. Wipe them down with a household disinfectant according to directions on the label.
  • Your child should not go to work or school while sick. Your child should avoid close contact with other people, including kissing and hugging.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.3 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-11-04
Last reviewed: 2014-10-30
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.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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