Health conditions

Viral meningitis

What is viral meningitis?

Viral meningitis is an infection of the membranes (linings) that cover the brain and spinal cord.

A variety of viruses can cause meningitis, including those that cause gastroenteritis, measles, mumps, chicken pox and herpes.

Viral meningitis is rarely serious, although symptoms may be severe. People usually recover completely.

How do you get viral meningitis?

You can get viral meningitis by breathing in viral particles that have been sneezed or coughed into the air by another infected person.

You can also become infected by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus, or through contact with faeces (for example, by changing nappies).

Viral meningitis is easily spread from contaminated hands to your mouth, so proper hand washing is very important for prevention.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • fever
  • severe headache
  • drowsiness or confusion
  • nausea (feeling sick) and vomiting
  • neck stiffness
  • sensitivity to light.

In babies, symptoms can be more difficult to recognise and may include marked fretfulness or irritability, drowsiness or reluctance to feed.

How do I know I have viral meningitis?

Contact your doctor if you have the above symptoms which do not resolve.

A diagnosis of viral meningitis is based on the history of symptoms, a physical examination and tests to identify the virus. These tests can include throat swabs, blood tests, a faecal (poo) sample and occasionally a lumbar puncture (where a sample of spinal fluid is taken).

While you have the infection

Your doctor will tell you how long you will be infectious, and this will depend on the specific virus that caused the viral meningitis. Your doctor should also tell you how long you should stay away from school or work.

Treatment of viral meningitis

There is no specific medication for viral meningitis. People usually recover completely from viral meningitis

However, you may be admitted to hospital so doctors can rule out other, more serious causes of infection.

How can viral meningitis be prevented?

You can reduce the risk of viral meningitis by following this advice:

  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Use a tissue or even the elbow of your arm to stop your hands becoming contaminated.
  • Wash your hands before eating, and after the toilet, nappy changing, blowing your nose and after cleaning up body fluid spills.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly for at least 15 seconds with warm soapy water. Turn the tap off with a single-use towel.
  • Avoid sharing eating and drinking utensils – some viruses may be passed on in saliva.

Is there a vaccine for viral meningitis?

There is no vaccine for viral meningitis. There are vaccines available for other types of bacterial meningitis.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Visit a GP after hours
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222

Remember

  • Viral meningitis is an infection of the membranes (linings) that cover the brain and spinal cord.
  • Symptoms and infectious periods vary depending on the virus responsible.
  • Most people recover from viral meningitis.

Acknowledgements
Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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