Aseptic or viral meningitis is inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal core. A virus is usually the root cause such as fungi, diseases spread by insects and other conditions that trigger it. This type of meningitis is usually not as serious as bacterial meningitis, which is life-threatening. Symptoms range from headache, neck pain, stiffness, confusion, sleepiness, fatigue, fever, sensitivity to light, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting and seizures.
Most often, aseptic meningitis goes away on its own with rest, fluids, and pain relievers. However, any signs of meningitis are always a medical emergency. The symptoms of aseptic meningitis are often the same as those of bacterial meningitis, which is life-threatening without treatment.
Generally, symptoms will start to happen about 3-7 days after exposure. They can happen gradually or fast, often occurring after a cold, diarrhea and other infections. Most cases go away completely in 5-14 days with rest, lots of fluids and over-the-counter pain and fever relievers.
A weakened immune system is a big proponent of viral meningitis. Also, being exposed to someone already with the virus, which makes teachers and healthcare workers most risk, as well as having a job that involves being in contact with many people such as in a retail location.
1 in 9,000 adults and children develop aseptic meningitis each year in the U.S., making it a very rare disease. It's important to note that meningitis is not a virus itself but an infection caused by a virus, therefore it's not preventable. The key is working on preventing the spread of the underlying virus. Here's what you can do:
- Carefully wash your hands every time you come in contact with someone with the illness.
- If you have the illness, avoid contact with others as much as possible until your symptoms go away. Wash your hands often, especially after using the bathroom.
- Keep children home from school if they are ill with diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting.
- Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after touching handrails and other surfaces in public places.
- Don't share drinking glasses, towels, or eating utensils with someone who is ill.
Treating this involves the basics - getting plenty of rest and over-the-counter pain medication for symptoms related to fever, headache and muscle aches. There are no antibiotics that can cure viral meningitis. If something other than a virus caused the illness, other treatments can be suggested such as:
- Treatment for some underlying causes, such as a fungal infection
- Hospital stay for severe cases
A physician will diagnose aseptic meningitis by examining the patient's full medical history, performing a physical exam, doing a spinal tap, blood tests and even sometimes imaging tests.