The brain and spinal cord are surrounded by layers of tissue. These layers are called the meninges. When these layers becomes swollen and irritated, it is called meningitis. The swelling in these layers can put pressure on the brain and spinal cord. The most common forms of meningitis include: Viral meningitisAseptic meningitis
—caused by a variety of medical conditions except bacteria
—generally the most serious infection
The Spinal Cord and Meninges
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Viral meningitis may be caused by several viruses. Examples include: Enteroviruses
West Nile virus
Viruses can be spread in numerous ways including: Contact with fluids from the cough or sneeze of an infected personContact with feces from an infected personClose personal contact with someone who is sickThrough insect bites
Viral meningitis is more common in children under 5 years old. Other factors that may increase the chance of viral meningitis include:
Conditions that weaken the immune system, such as
HIVTreatments that suppress the immune systemCrowded, unsanitary conditionsSeason—summer and early fall
Symptoms of viral meningitis include: High feverHeadacheStiff, sore neckNauseaVomitingSensitivity to bright lightsSleepiness
Symptoms in newborns and infants include: InactivityHigh fever—especially unexplained high feverIrritabilityVomitingFeeding poorly or refusing to eatTautness or bulging of soft spots between skull bonesDifficulty awakening
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will focus on the nervous system.
To help rule out other causes of the inflammation, your doctor may need images of the brain, spine, and skull. Imaging tests may include: MRI scanCT scan
Viral meningitis has symptoms similar to bacterial meningitis.
To make sure you do not have bacterial meningitis, the following tests of your bodily fluids may be done: Blood testsUrine testsSputum testsLumbar puncture
—to evaluate cerebralspinal fluid that surrounds the spinal cord and brain
Tests of pus from skin infections
Treatment includes: Rest and fluids
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.
Antibiotics may be given for 2-3 days while the doctor waits for test results—antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infectionsIV antiviral drugs—for severe infections—few viruses can be treated this way
To reduce your chance of a viral infection: Wash your hands
If you are in close contact with an infected personAfter you change the diaper of an infected infantRegularly wash objects and surfaces touched by children. Use a diluted bleach solution.Ask your doctor about appropriate vaccinations, especially if you've never had measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox.
To prevent infections spread by mosquito bites:
Follow local public health recommendations for reducing mosquitoes near your home.Take steps to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. Use insect repellent and appropriate clothing when outdoors.Avoid areas or being outside when mosquitoes are prevalent.
If you are contemplating a pregnancy:
Be sure you are protected from common diseases like chickenpox. Ask your doctor about recommended vaccinations.Avoid all contact with rodents during pregnancy.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/viral.html. Updated April 1, 2014. Accessed August 27, 2014.
Last reviewed May 2016 by David Horn, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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