Meningitis: What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself - Part 2: Viral Meningitis

Posted on August 13 2018

In our last blog, we discussed one of the two most common forms of meningitis called, Bacterial Meningitis. Today, we are discussing the other most common type: Viral Meningitis. 

Viral Meningitis is an inflammation of the tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord. It is often less severe than bacterial meningitis, and most people recover on their own, or without treatment. However; it is still vital for anyone with symptoms of meningitis to seek medical attention as soon as possible because it can still become very serious. 

As stated in the last blog, only a doctor can determine if you have meningitis, what type it is, and the best course of treatment - which can be lifesaving. Babies under one month old, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to have severe illness from viral meningitis.

The Causes of Viral Meningitis

Non-polio enteroviruses are the most common cause of viral meningitis within the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Non-polio enteroviruses are very common. They cause approximately 10 to 15 million infections and tens of thousands of hospitalizations each year. Most people who get infected with these viruses don't become sick, or they only have a mild illness - like the common cold. Some, however, can have serious complications - especially infants and those who have a weak immune system. Only a small number of people infected with enteroviruses will actually develop meningitis.

Other viruses that can cause meningitis are:

- Mumps Virus 

- Herpesviruses - including, herpes simplex viruses, and varicella-zoster virus (which causes chickenpox and shingles)

- Measles Virus 

- Influenza Virus 

- Arboviruses, such as the West Nile Virus

- Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus

The Risk Factors for Viral Meningitis

You can develop viral meningitis at any age, but some do have a higher risk of getting the disease, including:

- Children under 5 years old

- People with weakened immune systems caused by diseases, medications (for example: chemotherapy), and recent organ or bone marrow transplants. 

How Viral Meningitis Spreads

If you are in close contact with a person who has viral meningitis, you may become infected with the virus that made that person sick. However; that doesn't necessarily mean that you'll develop meningitis. In fact, you are not likely to develop meningitis, and that is because only a small number of people who get infected with the viruses that cause meningitis will actually develop viral meningitis.

Symptoms of Viral Meningitis

Similarly to bacterial meningitis, the symptoms for both babies, children and adults are quite universal.

Common symptoms in babies include:

- Fever 

- Irritability

- Poor eating

- Sleepiness, or trouble waking up from sleep

- Lethargy, or a lack of energy

Common symptoms in children and adults include:

- Fever 

- Headache 

- Stiff neck 

- Sensitivity to bright light 

- Excessive sleepiness, or trouble waking up from sleep

- Nausea 

- Irritability

- Vomiting

- Lack of appetite

- Lethargy

Most people with mild viral meningitis usually recover on their own within seven to ten days. Initial symptoms of viral meningitis are similar to those for bacterial meningitis, however; bacterial meningitis is usually severe and can cause serious complications, such as brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disabilities. 

The pathogens, or germs, that cause bacterial meningitis can also be associated with another serious illness called sepsis. Sepsis is the body's overwhelming and life-threatening response to infection that can cause tissue damage, organ failure, and death. 

As always, it is critical to see a healthcare provider as soon as possible if you think you or your child may have meningitis. Only a doctor can determine if you have the disease, the type of meningitis, and the best treatment. 

Diagnosis & Treatment of Viral Meningitis

Meningitis is only diagnosed by doing specific lab tests on specimens from a person suspected of having meningitis. The doctor may collect samples for testing by:

- Swabbing your nose and throat 

- Obtaining a stool sample

- Drawing blood or drawing fluid from around your spinal cord

In most cases, there is no specific treatment for viral meningitis. As stated above, most people usually recover without treatment within a week to ten days. However, those with meningitis caused by certain viruses, such as herpesvirus and influenza, will usually need and recover from treatment, such as antiviral medicine. 

Antibiotics do not help viral infections, so they are not useful in the treatment of viral meningitis. Antibiotics do fight bacteria, so they are extremely important when treating bacterial meningitis. People who develop severe illness, or who are at risk for developing severe illness, may need to be hospitalized for observation.

Preventing Viral Meningitis

Unfortunately, there are no vaccines to protect against non-polio enteroviruses, which are the most common cause of viral meningitis. The following steps  can be taken to help lower the risk of getting infected with non-polio enteroviruses, or spreading them to other people:

- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after changing diapers, using the bathroom, coughing, or blowing your nose.

- Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.

- Avoid close contact, such as kissing, hugging, sharing cups, or sharing eating utensils with people who are sick.

- Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue, or use the upper part of your shirt sleeve, not your hands.

Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs, especially if someone is sick.

Stay home when you are sick.

Some vaccinations can protect against diseases such as measles, mumps, chickenpox, and influenza - all of which can lead to viral meningitis. Make sure that you and your child are vaccinated on schedule. 

If possible, avoid bites from mosquitoes and other insects that carry diseases that can infect humans, and control mice and rats. If you have a rodent in or around your home, follow the cleaning and control precautions listed on the CDC's website about lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus. 

As always, whether bacterial or viral, meningitis can quickly turn serious if not treated right away. Seek medical attention if you or a loved one suspect symptoms of meningitis. Stay tuned for Part 3 of the Meningitis series, where we will wrap of the other four types of meningitis, and how to protect yourself from them, as well. 

Viral Meningitis from Mountainside Medical Equipment on Vimeo.