Meningitis is a word that evokes a serious illness but many people are unsure of what the condition actually is. To understand meningitis, it is important to understand that it is a swelling and irritation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. This lining is called the meninges. Both bacterial infections and viral infections can cause this secondary condition which is often far more serious.
Bacterial meningitis is a potentially fatal condition that can have severe secondary effects: brain damage, deafness, limb amputation, and stroke among the most common. Viral meningitis, which is also referred to as aseptic meningitis, is milder and more common than bacterial meningitis. Viral meningitis rarely has any long-term after-effects, and is seldom fatal. Viral meningitis causes between 25,000 and 50,000 hospital visits each year in the United States.
Children are most often diagnosed as having viral meningitis, and children aged 0 – 5 are the most vulnerable to the condition.
Viral Meningitis: Causes
All but 10 percent of viral meningitis cases are caused by various kinds of enteroviruses, a common family of viruses. The viruses usually enter the body through the mouth, and then spread to the brain and its surrounding tissues. Coxsackie viruses and echoviruses are the most common offenders.
Other viral culprits include:
- Viruses transmitted by bites from infected mosquitoes
- Rabies virus
- Type 1 and type 2 herpes viruses
- Chickenpox virus (varicella virus)
- Mumps virus
- West Nile virus
Meningitis can also be caused by a direct infection of the meninges.
Viral Meningitis: Symptoms
Viral meningitis has the same symptoms as that of the flu.:
- Severe headache
- Stiff neck
- Abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting
- Eyes sensitive to light
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
Symptoms may last anywhere from a week to 10 days.
Viral Meningitis: Treatment
There is no ‘cure’ per se for viral meningitis, but as for other viruses, the symptoms can be managed by medication, and resting and drinking fluids is advised. These measures will greatly increase how comfortable you feel as you recover. If your meningitis’ onset is from a very contagious virus (chicken pox is a good example), the doctor may prescribe antiviral medications to avoid spreading a particularly virulent strain (and more possible cases of meningitis).
While most patients make a complete recovery from viral meningitis, there have been lingering side effects in some cases. Most often, these include fatigue, depression, and continuing headaches.
Viral Meningitis: Contagious?
Viral meningitis is indeed contagious, or rather; the enteroviruses that can cause meningitis are contagious. Enteroviruses are spread through direct contact with an infected person’s mucus, sputum, saliva, or stools. Additionally, enteroviruses can be spread via coughing and sneezing. If you touch a person or object that is infected and then touch your own mouth or nose, there is a risk of infection also. The greatest risk from stool infection arises from parents and caregivers working with populations that are not toilet-trained.
Of the people that catch an enterovirus, less than 0.1% (1 in 1000) will develop viral meningitis.
Viral Meningitis: Prevention
There are easy and commonsense ways to prevent infection by enterovirus that may turn into viral meningitis:
- Practice adequate hand washing. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after you sneeze, cough, shake hands, use the toilet, and change diapers. Wash your hands prior to cooking or eating.
- Disinfect. Disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated by enterovirus. First, use soap and water. Finish with a 1:10 bleach to water mixture. Do not reuse
- Vaccinate. Ensure that you and your children have been vaccinated for both MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) as well as varicella (chicken pox) as stated above, all these viruses can cause viral meningitis.
- Practice mosquito control. Mosquito-borne viruses can cause meningitis too, so it is important to eliminate standing water, unnecessary brush from around your home. Make sure yourself and children are using adequate insect repellant, and wearing appropriate clothing. Bear in mind that mosquitos are most active at dusk and in still conditions.
Viral meningitis is largely avoidable with proper precautions in place, namely vaccinations and proper hand-washing procedures. If you think you or a loved one may have contracted the condition, see your doctor right away as a precaution.