What is viral meningitis?

Viral meningitis is an inflammation of the protective coverings of your brain and spinal cord called meninges. Meningitis has many causes, but the most common is a virus called an enterovirus. Anyone can get viral meningitis, but it’s more common in children and young adults. It’s also more common during the summer and fall.

How will my healthcare provider know I have viral meningitis?

People with viral meningitis typically have a severe headache, fever, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and no appetite. Bright lights can hurt their eyes. Other symptoms may include a sore throat and rash. Signs and symptoms usually start about a week after contact with the virus and you may feel like you’re coming down with the flu.

Your healthcare provider may order tests on your blood and a small sample of your spinal fluid (from a test called a “spinal tap”) to help figure out what’s causing your symptoms. Some people may also get a computed tomography scan to make sure something else isn’t causing their severe headache.

How is viral meningitis treated?

Bacterial meningitis, which is usually much more serious than viral meningitis, is treated with antibiotics. But antibiotics don’t work against viruses. Luckily, most people recover completely from viral meningitis in 7 to 10 days without special treatment.

If you have viral meningitis, resting in bed, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking medicine to reduce fever and headache can help you feel better. You may need to go to the hospital for I.V. fluids if you’re vomiting frequently, or if your healthcare provider thinks you may have bacterial meningitis, which must be treated without delay.

What can I do to protect myself?

Viruses that cause meningitis can be spread by saliva or mucus of an infected person. It also can be found in stool. To avoid spreading viruses, cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze to prevent spreading germs and clean your hands well and often, especially after using the toilet, changing diapers, coughing, sneezing, and blowing your nose. Also make sure you’re up-to-date with your vaccinations.

Regularly clean surfaces in your house that many people frequently touch, such as doorknobs or the TV remote control. Don’t share drinking glasses, eating utensils, or other items with anyone who’s sick or if you feel sick.

Protect yourself from mosquitoes, other insects, and rodents that can spread some viruses that cause meningitis.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

If you have any of the signs and symptoms listed here or you’ve recently come in contact with someone with meningitis, call your healthcare provider right away. Viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis have many of the same symptoms, and your healthcare provider needs to know if you have the more serious type, which must be treated right away in the hospital.