Meningitis is a condition that causes the membranes covering your brain and spinal cord to become inflamed. Sometimes, this inflammation is due to bacterial infection. When bacteria are not causing the inflammation or if the bacterial organism cannot be grown and identified in the laboratory, it is called aseptic meningitis. The majority of the cases of aseptic meningitis are caused by viruses.
Aseptic meningitis most commonly occurs in infants and young children. Although aseptic meningitis can make you feel ill, it is typically milder than bacterial meningitis. According to the Mayo Clinic, serious complications are rare and you will most likely feel completely better within two weeks (Mayo Clinic).
About half of all aseptic meningitis cases are caused by common seasonal viruses in the late summer and early fall. You can catch these viruses by coming into contact with an infected person’s cough, saliva, or fecal matter. Other viruses that can cause meningitis include the following:
- herpes simplex (typically Type 2)
- west Nile
Your doctor may suspect that the meningitis is being caused by a virus, but will not be able to identify the specific type of virus.
Other conditions that may cause aseptic meningitis in rare cases include:
- fungal infection
- Lyme disease
- drug allergies
- inflammatory diseases
Aseptic meningitis may develop rapidly or over the course of several weeks, depending on the type of organism that is responsible.
Most cases of aseptic meningitis occur in children younger than 5 years old. The vaccines that protect children from bacterial meningitis are not always effective against aseptic meningitis, which is caused by viruses.
Your child faces an increased risk of catching a virus that can cause meningitis if he or she attends school or daycare. Adults who work in schools or care facilities are also at risk.
A virus or another illness might have led you to develop meningitis. In that case, you may experience the symptoms of the first condition in addition to meningitis symptoms.
Sometimes, the meningitis symptoms will not emerge until the original condition has run its course. In children and adults, the symptoms of aseptic, or viral, meningitis include:
- stomach ache
- painful headache
- body aches
- sensitivity to light
- loss of appetite
Infants and toddlers may have any of the following symptoms:
- irritability and frequent crying
- difficulty feeding
- a bulging where the soft spot is located on the baby’s head
Aseptic meningitis is often a mild condition and you may recover from it on your own, without medication. Since it is easy to confuse symptoms with cold or flu symptoms, you may never know you had meningitis. This makes aseptic meningitis different from bacterial meningitis, which causes severe symptoms and may be life-threatening.
However, you should seek medical treatment if you suspect that you or your child may have meningitis. Without a medical exam, it can be difficult to tell what type of meningitis you have in the early stages. Although it rarely happens, aseptic meningitis can cause dangerous complications. It’s important that your doctor is able to monitor you until you recover.
If you have any of the following symptoms, you should seek treatment as soon as possible:
- stiff, painful neck
- debilitating, persistent headache
If your doctor suspects you have meningitis, he or she will want to test you to determine whether you have aseptic meningitis, or the more dangerous bacterial meningitis. Tests might include blood sampling to check for bacteria, X-rays and CT scans to find any areas of swelling and inflammation, and a lumbar puncture or spinal tap.
A spinal tap—which extracts cerebrospinal fluid from your spine—is the only definitive way to diagnosis meningitis. Spinal fluid is made by the brain and surrounds the brain and spinal cord to protect it. If you have meningitis, the fluid drawn from the tap should have increased white blood cells and protein levels. The fluid can also help your doctor determine whether bacteria, viruses, or other infectious agents are causing the meningitis.
With viral meningitis, additional testing may determine the specific virus. If your doctor suspects that you may have a serious underlying condition that has caused meningitis, additional tests such as blood work and imaging may be ordered.
Treatment options depend on the specific cause of your meningitis. Many cases of viral meningitis are cured on their own within one to two weeks. You will be instructed to rest, stay hydrated, and use over-the-counter medications. Analgesics and/or anti-inflammatory medications may be recommended for pain and fever control.
If the aseptic meningitis is fungal or caused by a treatable virus like herpes, your doctor will prescribe specific medications for you to take. For bacterial meningitis, you will need intravenous antibiotics and perhaps other medications to address the more serious symptoms, such as brain swelling or seizures. You may need to stay in the hospital, depending on your situation.
Less than 1 percent of patients with aseptic meningitis end up with a lasting illness. The majority of cases resolve within one to two weeks after the onset of symptoms.
In very rare cases, aseptic meningitis can lead to brain infections. Complications are more likely to occur if you do not seek treatment for your condition, or if you have an underlying condition that weakens your immune system.
Practice good hygiene to reduce your risk of falling ill with meningitis. Wash your hands before meals and after using the restroom, and teach your children to do the same. Always cover your mouth before sneezing or coughing. You should not to share drinks or food with others, especially when you are in group settings.
It’s also important to get plenty of rest, maintain a healthy diet, and avoid contact with others who are sick with cold or flu symptoms.