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Viral Meningitis Questions

Q: What is Viral Meningitis?

A: Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes ("meninges") that cover the brain and spinal cord. Viral infections are the most common cause of meningitis; bacterial infections are the second most common cause. Other, rarer causes of meningitis include fungi, parasites, and non-infectious causes, including those that are related to drugs.

Meningitis caused by viral infections is sometimes called "aseptic meningitis."

Q: Is Viral Meningitis a Serious Disease?

A: Viral ("aseptic") meningitis is serious but rarely fatal in people with normal immune systems. Usually, the symptoms last from 7 to 10 days and the patient recovers completely. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, can be very serious and result in disability or death if not treated promptly. Often, the symptoms of viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis are the same. For this reason, if you think you or your child has meningitis, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Q: What Causes Viral Meningitis?

A: Different viral infections can lead to viral meningitis. But most cases in the United States, particularly during the summer and fall months, are caused by enteroviruses (which include enteroviruses, coxsackieviruses, and echoviruses). Most people who are infected with enteroviruses either have no symptoms or only get a cold, rash, or mouth sores with low-grade fever. And, only a small number of people with enterovirus infections develop meningitis.

Other viral infections that can lead to meningitis include mumps, herpes virus infection (such as Epstein-Barr virus, herpes simplex viruses, and varicella-zoster virus —the cause of chickenpox and shingles), measles, spine flu, and influenza.

Arboviruses, which mosquitoes and other insects spread, can also cause infections that can lead to viral meningitis. And lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, which is spread by rodents, is a rare cause of viral meningitis.

Q: What are the Signs and Symptoms of Viral Meningitis?

A: Symptoms can appear quickly or they can also take several days to appear, usually after a cold or runny nose, diarrhea, vomiting, or other signs of infection show up. Symptoms in adults may differ from those in children: