What is viral meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the thin layer of tissue that covers your brain and spinal cord. This layer of tissue is called the meninges. In viral meningitis, the infection is caused by a virus. Viral meningitis isn't usually as dangerous as meningitis caused by bacteria ( bacterial meningitis Bacterial Meningitis Meningitis is an infection of the thin layer of tissue that covers your brain and spinal cord. This layer of tissue is called the meninges. In bacterial meningitis, infection of the meninges... read more ).
Viral meningitis usually begins with fever, feeling ill, headache, and muscle aches
Later, your headache gets worse, and you may have a stiff neck
Doctors suspect viral meningitis based on your symptoms and the results of a spinal tap Spinal Tap Spinal fluid is a liquid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. Spinal fluid helps cushion your brain if you hit your head or fall. Spinal fluid moves freely around your brain and spinal... read more
If you have meningitis caused by HIV Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection and AIDS The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a type of virus called a retrovirus. It causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), which is life-threatening. HIV is called an immunodeficiency... read more or herpesvirus Overview of Herpesvirus Infections Herpesviruses are a group of viruses that can cause several different infections. The disease most people call "herpes," called herpes simplex, is just one of the types of herpesvirus. Once... read more , you're treated with drugs for those viruses, but there are no drugs that treat most types of viral meningitis
Most people with viral meningitis feel better in a few weeks
What causes viral meningitis?
Many different viruses can cause viral meningitis, including:
Stomach viruses ( enteroviruses Overview of Enterovirus Infections Enterovirus infections affect many parts of the body and may be caused by any of several different strains of enterovirus. Enterovirus infections are caused by many different viruses. Symptoms... read more )—these are the most common cause
Viruses carried by mosquitoes ( arboviruses Overview of Arbovirus, Arenavirus, and Filovirus Infections Arbovirus, arenavirus, and filovirus are viruses that are spread from animals to people and, with some viruses, from people to people. The animal involved depends on the type of virus. Many... read more )
Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Lymphocytic choriomeningitis is a viral infection that usually causes a flu-like illness, sometimes with rash, joint pain, or infections in other parts of the body. Most people become infected... read more , carried by infected mice or pet hamsters
You can get the viruses that cause viral meningitis in several ways, depending on which virus is the cause:
Touching contaminated stool (poop) which can happen when infected people swim in a public swimming pool or don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom
Sex or other genital contact with an infected person
A bite from an insect, such as a mosquito
Breathing in the virus in the air
Touching dust or food with urine or stool on it from infected mice or pet hamsters
What are the symptoms of viral meningitis?
Symptoms may resemble those of bacterial meningitis Bacterial Meningitis Meningitis is an infection of the thin layer of tissue that covers your brain and spinal cord. This layer of tissue is called the meninges. In bacterial meningitis, infection of the meninges... read more but are usually milder and progress more slowly. At first, you may have no symptoms or symptoms similar to a cold or stomach virus, such as:
Not feeling hungry
Later, you’ll have:
Stiff neck that makes you unable to touch your chin to your chest or causes pain when you try—moving your head in other directions may not hurt as much
Most people, but not everyone, with herpes meningitis will also have herpes sores on their genitals.
How can doctors tell if I have viral meningitis?
Doctors do tests to look for viruses in the fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord (spinal fluid). To get the spinal fluid, doctors do a:
In a spinal tap, doctors put a long, thin needle in your lower back. They take out a little spinal fluid for testing. Before doing the spinal tap, doctors sometimes do an MRI Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) MRI is a test that uses a machine with a powerful magnet to make pictures of the inside of your body. A computer records changes in the magnetic field around your body. The computer then uses... read more or CT scan Computed Tomography A CT scan uses a large machine shaped like a large donut to take x-rays from many angles. A computer then takes the x-rays and creates many detailed pictures of the inside of your body. Each... read more .
Doctors will also:
Do blood tests for signs of a viral infection
How a Spinal Tap Is Done
Spinal fluid flows through a channel between the middle and inner layer of tissues (meninges) that cover the brain and spinal cord. To remove a sample of this fluid, a doctor inserts a small, hollow needle between two bones (vertebrae) in the lower spine, below the point where the spinal cord ends. Usually, people lie on their side with their knees curled to their chest. This position widens the space between the vertebrae, so that the doctor can avoid hitting the bones when the needle is inserted.
Doctors collect spinal fluid in test tubes and send it to a lab for testing.
How do doctors treat viral meningitis?
Doctors give you anti-virus medicines if the cause of your meningitis is HIV or herpes. They'll also give you medicine to treat your symptoms, such as acetaminophen for a fever and headache.
Most people with viral meningitis don't need anti-virus medicine, because they'll get better within a few weeks with or without treatment. Sometimes, recovery is slow, and it can take a few months to feel better.