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Viral Meningitis in Children

Meningitis is an infection of the membrane and fluid around the brain and spinal cord. Viral meningitis is caused by a virus. It may start as another illness, such as stomach flu. It most often occurs in children under 5 years of age. It is not the same as bacterial meningitis. That is a serious illness caused by bacteria. It needs to be treated right away. Viral meningitis is often mild. It may go away with no treatment.

Boy in bed, looking distressed. Woman has her hand on his shoulder.

Symptoms of Meningitis

Viral meningitis is not an emergency. But the symptoms can be the same as bacterial meningitis. You won’t know which one your child has. So call 911 or emergency services if your child has some of these symptoms:

  • Fever over 100.5°F

  • Severe headache that doesn’t go away

  • Stiff neck (arching back or neck in infants)

  • Nausea or vomiting with headache

  • Sleepiness; difficulty waking up

  • Irritability; dislike of being handled

  • Bruise-like rash or splotchy skin

  • Sensitivity to light

  • No appetite

Note: If a newborn or infant is irritable, very sleepy, or eats poorly, have the child checked by a doctor right away.

Diagnosing Meningitis

Tests are done to diagnose meningitis. The tests can show if it is bacterial or viral. The tests include:

  • Spinal tap. A sample of spinal fluid is taken from the lower back. It is checked for signs of bacteria or viruses. This is the definitive test for meningitis.

  • Throat culture. A swab is put in the throat. It is then checked for bacteria.

  • Imaging tests. These may include x-rays and a computed tomography (CT) scan. These tests look for areas of swelling and inflammation.

Treating Viral Meningitis

Viral meningitis often goes away on its own in about 10 days. Your doctor may advise you to give your child certain medications. These are to help keep your child more comfortable. When your child has recovered, you may need to take him or her to the doctor. This is to check for problems with vision and hearing. Movement and mental function will be checked as well.

 

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