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 viral infection. It often starts as another illness, such as stomach flu. Most cases of viral meningitis occur in children under 5 years of age. Viral meningitis is usually mild and often goes away without treatment. It is much less serious than bacterial meningitis.
Symptoms of Meningitis

Symptoms of Meningitis

It’s hard to know from the symptoms whether a child is infected with bacterial or viral meningitis. Because bacterial meningitis must be treated as soon as possible, call 911 or emergency services right away if you or your child has any 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

Note: Have any newborn or infant checked by a doctor right away if he or she is very irritable, very sleepy, or eats poorly.

Diagnosing Meningitis

Diagnosing Meningitis

Tests are done to diagnose meningitis and determine whether the infection is bacterial or viral. These tests include:

  • Spinal tap: Taking a sample of spinal fluid from the lower back to check for signs of bacteria or viruses. This is the definitive test for meningitis.
  • Throat culture: Taking a swab of throat secretions to check for bacteria.
  • Imaging tests: These may include x-rays and a computed tomography (CT) scan to look for areas of swelling and inflammation.
Treating Viral Meningitis

Treating Viral Meningitis

Viral meningitis usually goes away on its own in about 10 days. Your doctor may recommend certain medications, if needed, to help keep your child more comfortable. After the child has recovered, the doctor may request follow-up visits to check for problems with vision, hearing, movement, and mental function.
05-22-07 The Montreal Children's Hospital