Meningitis is a condition that causes the tissues covering your brain and spinal cord to become inflamed. Sometimes, the inflammation can occur as a result of a bacterial infection. This is known as bacterial meningitis. When the inflammation isn’t caused by bacteria, the condition is called aseptic meningitis. Viruses cause the vast majority of aseptic meningitis cases, which is why the condition is also known as viral meningitis.
Aseptic meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis, but its symptoms are usually less severe. Serious complications are rare and most people completely recover within two weeks after the onset of symptoms.
About half of all aseptic meningitis cases are caused by common seasonal viruses in the late summer and early fall. Viruses that can cause aseptic meningitis include the following:
You can catch these viruses by coming into contact with an infected person’s cough, saliva, or fecal matter. You can also get some of these viruses from a mosquito bite.
In rare cases, other conditions can lead to aseptic meningitis. These include:
Aseptic meningitis may develop rapidly or over the course of several weeks, depending on the type of organism that caused the condition.
Anyone can get aseptic meningitis, but the highest rates occur among children under age 5. The vaccines that protect children from bacterial meningitis aren’t always effective against aseptic meningitis, which is caused by viruses and other organisms.
Children who attend school or day care are at an increased risk of catching a virus that can cause aseptic meningitis. Adults who work in theses facilities are also at risk.
People are more likely to develop meningitis if they have a condition that weakens their immune system, such as AIDS or diabetes.
The symptoms of aseptic meningitis can vary depending on the virus or medical condition that caused it. Sometimes, the symptoms won’t emerge until the original condition has run its course.
In general, however, the symptoms of aseptic meningitis in children and adults include:
- a fever
- a stomachache
- a painful headache
- body aches
- sensitivity to light, or photophobia
- a loss of appetite
Infants and toddlers may show the following symptoms:
- a fever
- irritability and frequent crying
- poor eating
- sleepiness or trouble waking up after sleeping
Aseptic meningitis is often a mild condition, and you may recover without medication or treatment. Since many of the symptoms are similar to those of the common cold or flu, you may never even know that you had aseptic meningitis. This makes aseptic meningitis different from bacterial meningitis, which causes severe symptoms and may be life-threatening.
However, you should still seek medical treatment if you suspect that you or your child has aseptic meningitis. Without a medical exam, it can be difficult to tell what type of meningitis you have in the early stages. Aseptic meningitis can also cause dangerous complications in some cases, and it’s important for your doctor to monitor your condition until you recover.
You should call your doctor as soon as possible if you or your child has any of the following symptoms:
- a stiff, painful neck
- a debilitating, persistent headache
- mental confusion
These may be signs of another, more serious medical condition.
If your doctor suspects you have meningitis, they’ll order certain tests to determine whether you have aseptic meningitis or bacterial meningitis.
In most cases, your doctor will perform 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. Your spinal fluid will have high protein levels and an increased white blood cell count if you have meningitis. This fluid can also help your doctor determine whether bacteria, viruses, or other infectious agents are causing the meningitis.
Your doctor may also order additional tests to determine the specific virus that caused the aseptic meningitis. These tests can include blood tests or imaging tests, such as X-rays and CT scans.
Treatment options may vary depending on the specific cause of the meningitis. Most people with aseptic meningitis completely recover without specific medical treatment within one to two weeks.
You’ll be instructed to rest, drink plenty of water, and take medications to help relieve your symptoms. Analgesics and anti-inflammatory medications may be recommended for pain and fever control. Your doctor might also prescribe specific medications if the aseptic meningitis was caused by a fungal infection or by a treatable virus, such as herpes.
Very few people 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 rare cases, aseptic meningitis can lead to brain infections. Complications are more likely to occur if you don’t seek treatment for your condition. They may also arise if you have an underlying condition that weakens your immune system.
You and your children should get vaccinated for certain viruses that can cause aseptic meningitis, such as chickenpox and mumps. It’s also important to practice good hygiene to reduce your risk of getting 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 also avoid sharing drinks or food with others, especially when you’re in a group setting.
You can also prevent meningitis by making sure you get plenty of rest, maintain a healthy diet, and avoid contact with others who have symptoms of a cold or the flu.