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Viral Meningitis

What is viral meningitis?
There are two main types of meningitis: viral and bacterial. Viral meningitis, also known as "aseptic meningitis", is the commonest type and is most frequently seen in children. It is a milder disease than bacterial meningitis and is rarely fatal. People with viral meningitis may have severe symptoms but they usually recover completely. There is no specific drug treatment for viral meningitis. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, is usually more severe, can be fatal and requires prompt treatment with antibiotics.  

What are the symptoms of viral meningitis?
The symptoms of viral meningitis may include:

  • High temperature
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Bright lights hurt the eyes
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting

The symptoms in young babies may be more difficult to identify and include high temperature, irritability, difficulty in waking the baby from sleep and refusing to eat. The symptoms of bacterial meningitis may be identical, particularly in the early stages of the disease. For this reason it is important that if you think that your child may have meningitis you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.

How is viral meningitis spread?
The viruses that cause viral meningitis are contagious and can be easily spread from person to person. However most people who get infected with these viruses do not become ill, or else just develop a mild cold or rash with a slight fever. Less than 1 in 1000 people infected with these viruses develop viral meningitis.  

What are the most common bugs causing viral meningitis?
Viral meningitis can be caused by many different viruses. The most common cause is an enterovirus infection (either an echovirus or coxsackie virus).

Less commonly reported (or very rare nowadays) viruses include the following; poliovirus, mumps virus, herpes simplex type 2 virus, herpes zoster, influenza types A or B, arbovirus, rubella, Epstein Barr virus.

How is viral meningitis diagnosed?
Viral meningitis is usually diagnosed following laboratory tests on the fluid surrounding the brain (cerebrospinal fluid, also known as CSF), by detection of virus in the stool of the patient, from throat swabs or blood samples.

How can I protect myself from infection?
Although the risk of acquiring viral meningitis is small it is sensible to take precautions to protect yourself and your family against this infection. The most important protection against the viruses that cause viral meningitis is hand washing to protect against the enteroviruses:  

  • You should wash your hands with soap and water after any contact with someone who has viral meningitis or a similar illness.
  • You should also wash your hands after using the toilet and before preparing or eating food.
  • Because babies frequently carry the viruses that cause viral meningitis it is particularly important to wash your hands after changing or handling dirty nappies.
  • Viral meningitis is mainly seen in children so it is important to encourage your children to wash their hands after using the toilet, before eating or if they are in contact with someone who is ill.
  • Vaccination against mumps, rubella and polio will protect you against these diseases.

Is viral meningitis a notifiable disease?
Yes, cases of viral meningitis, both laboratory confirmed and “probable” are notifiable to the Department of Public Health. See the case definition for details.

Further information about clinical features and control of enteroviral infections is available.

Last reviewed: 6 April 2011



Health Protection Surveillance Centre, 25-27 Middle Gardiner St, Dublin 1, Ireland. t: +353 1 8765300 f: +353 1 8561299 e:hpsc@hse.ie
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