Viral meningitis fact sheet
Viral meningitis is an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by a variety of different viruses. It is a complication of having another viral illness – most commonly, the result of a viral gastrointestinal infection.
Viral meningitis is fairly common, and is different to bacterial meningitis. Bacterial meningitis is uncommon but is very serious and requires prompt medical attention.
What are the symptoms of viral meningitis?
- severe headache
- drowsiness or confusion
- nausea and vomiting
- neck stiffness
- sensitivity to light.
In babies, symptoms are more difficult to recognise. Symptoms may also include fretfulness or irritability and a reluctance to feed.
How soon do symptoms occur?
Symptoms of viral meningitis generally appear between three and seven days after exposure to someone who was excreting the virus.
Symptoms usually last seven to 10 days and the person completely recovers.
How are the viruses that cause viral meningitis spread?
A number of different viruses can cause viral meningitis. Some are spread by direct or indirect contact with faecal material, others by respiratory secretions (saliva, sputum or nasal mucus) from an infected person.
When is viral meningitis infectious?
The typical viruses that cause viral meningitis can spread to close contacts, such as household members, friends and colleagues.
The virus can be spread from just before an infected person gets sick; the person will then be infectious for about another week.
Only some people who get infected will develop symptoms.
What do I do if I have symptoms?
See your local doctor or emergency department if you have symptoms.
How is viral meningitis diagnosed?
Viral meningitis is diagnosed by symptoms.
It is confirmed by blood tests, a stool specimen or throat swabs. Sometimes a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) is needed.
Do I need to stay away from school or work if I have viral meningitis?
If you have been diagnosed with viral meningitis, you need to stay away for school or work until you have recovered. This means you no longer have any symptoms of meningitis, or any other associated symptoms, such as diarrhoea.
How is viral meningitis treated?
There is no specific medication for viral meningitis.
Treatment consists of rest, pain medication as necessary and sometimes admission to hospital for investigation and monitoring.
During recovery, some cases may feel tired and need to take additional short rests during the day. However, these symptoms improve over time and people can expect to make a full recovery from viral meningitis.
Is there a vaccination against viral meningitis?
There is no vaccine for viral meningitis. There are vaccines available for some of the more severe types of bacterial meningitis.
What can I do to avoid getting viral meningitis?
Viruses that cause gastroenteritis and other infections are easily spread from contaminated hands to your mouth.
Wash your hands thoroughly for at least 15 seconds with warm soapy water.
Wash your hands before eating, and after the toilet, nappy changing, blowing your nose and after cleaning up body fluid spills.
Avoid sharing eating and drinking utensils – some viruses may be passed on in saliva.
Want more information?
Call the Public Health Hotline on 1800 671 738.