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Viral Meningitis

What it is, what causes it and when to see your doctor.

What is Viral Meningitis?
Meningitis is an inflammation of the tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord. Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis. It is often less severe than bacterial meningitis, and most people usually get better on their own (without treatment).

What causes it?
Non-polio enteroviruses (which can cause flu, measles, mumps, and chickenpox) are the most common cause of viral meningitis in the United States, especially from summer to fall when these viruses spread most often. However, only a small number of people who get infected with enteroviruses will actually develop meningitis.

How do you get it?
If you have close contact with a person who has viral meningitis, you may become infected with the virus that made that person sick. Viruses that can cause meningitis spread in different ways, most commonly through coughing, sneezing or touching infected surfaces.  
However, you are not likely to develop meningitis as a complication of the illness.

What are the symptoms?
Initial symptoms of viral meningitis are similar to those for bacterial meningitis. However, bacterial meningitis is usually severe and can cause serious complications. It is very important to see a healthcare provider right away if you think you or your child might have meningitis; a doctor can determine if you have the disease, the type of meningitis, and the best treatment. Most people with viral meningitis usually get better on their own within 7 to 10 days.

Common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Sleepiness or trouble waking up from sleep
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy (a lack of energy)

How do you prevent it?
There are no vaccines to protect against non-polio enteroviruses, which are the most common cause of viral meningitis. You can take the following steps to help lower your chances 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 toilet, or coughing or blowing your nose.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact such as kissing, hugging, or sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve, not your hands.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs, especially if someone is sick.
  • Do not share food and drink with others.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Make sure your vaccinations are received on schedule.

For more information, please visit the Center for Disease Control’s website at:

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