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Viral Meningitis – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Pictures

Updated on February 17, 2014

Viral meningitis is meningitis caused by a virus. Meningitis is an illness typified by inflammation of the meninges, i.e., the membranes that surround the brain and the spinal cord. Meningitis can also be triggered due to bacterial or fungal infections, or non-infectious causes.

Viral meningitis is the most common cause of meningitis in the United States. As compared to bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis is a mild condition which often resolves on its own without treatment. However, as meningitis can be life-threatening, it is best to seek emergency medical attention whenever the symptoms arise.

Viral Meningitis: Is it Contagious?

Viral meningitis generally tends to spread via contact with respiratory secretions or feces. The signs and symptoms of viral meningitis tend to mimic those of flu, and hence is slightly difficult to detect.

Viral meningitis can be caused by many different kinds of viruses. The spread of such infection is dependent on the type of causative virus. The enterovirus is the most common cause of viral meningitis. It spreads through sputum, saliva, mucus, and other respiratory secretions, as well as via fecal contamination. The varicella zoster and mumps viruses tend to spread via exposure to infected sputum or saliva.

The virus causing meningitis gains entry into the body after contact with an infected individual. However, the chances of developing the infection remain minimal. It is also possible for affected people to develop viral infections, but it is not always necessary for the infection to progress to or cause viral meningitis.

Other kinds of viruses tend to spread via mosquitoes. However, it rarely results in an infection. The incubation period for enteroviruses ranges between 3 to 7 days. After an individual gets infected, the virus can spread to other people after 3 days until a maximum of 10 days. As the infection by itself is self-limiting, the virus stops being contagious after a period of ten days.

Children infected by the herpes and mumps viruses are at greater risk to getting infected by the virus and eventually developing viral meningitis. Individuals older than 40 years old are considered to have immunity to viral meningitis.

Symptoms of Viral Meningitis

Some of the signs and symptoms of viral meningitis are listed below:

In infants younger than two years:

  • Increased irritability
  • High fever
  • Poor feeding or appetite loss
  • In rare cases, viral meningitis rash
  • Sleepiness or difficulties in waking up
  • The neck and body may elicit stiffness
  • Continuous crying
  • The fontanel may have a slight bulge
  • Sluggishness or lethargy or inactivity
  • Affected babies are difficult to comfort. They tend to cry a lot harder after being picked up.

In individuals older than two years:

  • Abrupt onset of high fever
  • Severe headaches that are distinct from usual headaches
  • Appetite loss
  • Stiffness in the neck
  • Photosensitivity
  • Sleepiness
  • Disorientation or problems in concentrating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Skin rashes
  • Seizures

Other uncommon symptoms include:

  • Joint aches
  • Physical discomfort
  • Drowsiness

The symptoms of viral meningitis generally become visible about 3 to 7 days after contact with the virus. The symptoms tend to persist for around 10 days, after which the risk of spreading the infection is substantially lowered. This is because the patient may have fully recovered or is in the stage of self-recovery.Children are more prone to developing viral meningitis. The disease is more prevalent during early fall and summer.

Causes of Viral Meningitis

Viral meningitis is caused due to infection of the meninges by the below listed types of viruses:

  • Enterovirus
  • Mumps
  • Herpes simplex virus, type 1 or 2
  • Varicella zoster which causes chickenpox
  • HIV or Human Immunodeficiency Virus
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus
  • Cytomegalovirus
  • Poliovirus
  • St. Louis Encephalitis virus
  • Coxsackie A virus
  • Arboviruses, via mosquitoes

Some of the risk factors which can increase the susceptibility to developing viral meningitis are listed below:

  • Viral meningitis generally tends to affect children less than 5 years old.
  • Skipping or not completing the recommended vaccinations
  • A compromised immune system that can arise due to spleen removal, alcohol abuse, use of immunosuppressants, AIDS, and diabetes, etc.
  • Living in community settings like military bases, student dormitories, child care facilities, and boarding schools.

Treatment of Viral Meningitis

  • Viral meningitis usually disappears on its own after some weeks.
  • Mild cases of viral meningitis usually requires bed rest, OTC pain medications for reduction of fever and alleviation of body aches, and intake of sufficient fluids.
  • Viral meningitis caused by the herpes virus requires treatment with antiviral drugs.

The below listed guidelines can help prevent viral meningitis:

  • Thoroughly wash the hands on a regular basis, especially after being in crowded places, using the toilet, or petting animals.
  • Do not share personal items like towels, eating utensils, toothbrushes, etc. with others.
  • Maintain the health of the immune system by regularly exercising, getting sufficient rest, and eating a balanced diet.
  • Take steps to protect oneself from mosquito bites.
  • Cover the nose and mouth while coughing or sneezing.
  • Children are most vulnerable to viral meningitis. Hence, ensure that they are vaccinated.
  • Take steps to control rodent/mice infestation

Viral Meningitis Pictures


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