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How contagious is Viral Meningitis?

Updated on March 6, 2014

Viral meningitis refers to meningitis caused by a viral infection. Inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, i.e., the meninges, is referred to as meningitis. Other causes of meningitis include fungal infections, bacterial infections, or non-infectious causes.

Most instances of meningitis in America are caused due to viral infections. Viral meningitis is a relatively milder condition than the other types. Also, while viral meningitis often gets better on its own, bacterial meningitis is a serious condition requiring immediate medical care. It may also be noted that the type of meningitis can only be determined after diagnosis. Hence, patients need to consult a doctor in all cases.

The contagious nature of viral meningitis

Viral meningitis typically spreads from one person to another via exposure to infected feces or respiratory emissions. As the signs and symptoms of viral meningitis are similar to flu, the condition is often difficult to identify.

Many different types of viruses can cause viral meningitis. The migration of infection is determined by the type of virus that causes the disease.Viral meningitis is most commonly caused by the enterovirus. This virus can transmit via varied respiratory emissions like saliva, mucus, and sputum, etc. as well as through contaminated feces. The varicella zoster virus and the mumps virus usually transmit via contact with infected saliva or sputum. Other types of viruses may spread via mosquito bites; but they rarely cause infections.

The meningitis causing virus enters a healthy person’s body after contact with another person carrying the virus. The risk to development of infection however remains negligible. Additionally, people may develop viral infections after getting exposed to it, but such infections may not always lead to development of viral meningitis.

The incubation time frame for enteroviruses falls between 3 to 7 days. After getting infected with the virus, a person can pass it on only after 3 days and for a maximum of ten days. This shows the self-limiting nature of the virus. After 10 days from initial infection, the person is no longer contagious.

It is important to note that children infected with the mumps and herpes viruses are increasingly susceptible to developing viral infections, which may ultimately progress to viral meningitis. Also, people over the age of 40 years tend to become immune to viral meningitis.

Symptoms of viral meningitis

Infants below two years of age may elicit the following signs and symptoms of viral meningitis:

  • Inactivity, lethargy, or sluggishness

  • Presence of a tiny bulge on the fontanel

  • Unabated crying

  • Stiffness in the body and neck

  • Excessive sleeping; trouble in waking up

  • Formation of viral meningitis rash in rare instances

  • Decreased or absent appetite

  • Fever with a high temperature

  • Excessive irritability

  • Difficulty in comforting affected babies. They may cry a lot more when picked up.

Symptoms in older individuals include:

  • Seizures

  • Skin rash

  • Vomiting and nausea

  • Trouble concentrating; confusion

  • Excessive sleeping;drowsiness

  • Increased sensitivity to light

  • Neck stiffness

  • Joint aches

  • Loss of appetite

  • Intense headaches that are different from other kinds

  • Sudden fever with high temperatures

  • Physical discomfort

Most symptoms of viral meningitis can be noticed about three to 7 days after exposure to the virus. The signs and symptoms may continue for nearly ten days, post which the chances of transmitting the infection are considerably reduced. This is because, after 10 days, the patient may either be in a phase of self-recovery, or may have completely recovered.

Causes of viral meningitis

  • Viral meningitis is caused due to infection and subsequent inflammation of the meninges by varied viruses. The enterovirus is the most common cause of viral meningitis in the US.

  • Other known viruses that can cause viral meningitis include coxsackie A virus, St. Louis encephalitis virus, poliovirus, cytomegalovirus, lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, Epstein-Barr virus, HIV, chickenpox causing varicella zoster, herpes simplex virus type 1 or 2, mumps, and arboviruses which get transmitted via mosquito bites.

Some risk factors for viral meningitis include:

  • Children are at greater risk to developing viral meningitis. Most cases are typically diagnosed in children younger than 5 years.

  • Viral meningitis is more widespread during summer and early autumn/fall.

  • Presence of an impaired immune system caused due to use of immunosuppressant drugs, surgical removal of the spleen, AIDS, alcohol abuse, diabetes, etc.

  • Residing in community settings such as child care facilities, boarding schools, student dormitories, and military bases.

  • Missing or not completing the necessary vaccinations

Treatment of viral meningitis

Viral meningitis often resolves on its own after a few weeks.

  • Drinking lots of fluids, taking over the counter pain killers for fever reduction and body ache alleviation, and adequate bed rest will help faster treatment of minor viral meningitis.

  • Doctors may prescribe antiviral medicines to treat viral meningitis caused by the herpes virus.

Preventive steps for viral meningitis include:

  • Ensure all vaccines are given to children.

  • Avoid sharing personal items with others.

  • Regularly and thoroughly wash the hands, particularly after going to the toilet, visiting public places, or petting animals.

  • Maintain a healthy immune system with a balanced diet, regular exercises, and enough rest.

  • Take steps to avoid mosquito bites and to control mice or rodent infestation.

  • Follow good habits like covering the mouth while coughing or sneezing.

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