What is aseptic meningitis?

Meningitis is a condition that causes swelling of the protective membranes or meninges that surround the brain and spinal cord. Aseptic meningitis is when something other than a bacterial infection causes meningitis. Most often, it is the result of a virus.

When someone has aseptic meningitis, the meninges become inflamed in a similar way to bacterial meningitis. However, unlike bacterial meningitis, aseptic meningitis is not usually life-threatening.

While still rare, aseptic meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis, but its symptoms are less severe. Most cases of aseptic meningitis resolve within 2 weeks.

Despite this, anyone who thinks they or their child may have aseptic meningitis should seek medical care as soon as possible to avoid complications and receive treatment if necessary.

Causes

Aseptic meningitis can be caused by a range of viruses. High fever may be one symptom.

Aseptic meningitis can be caused by a range of viruses. These are usually enteroviruses, such as seasonal viruses that are prevalent in late summer and fall. These viruses are by far the most common cause of viral meningitis, as well as other, milder illnesses.

A person can contract one of these viruses by coming into contact with the saliva or fecal matter of an infected person. Most people who contract one of these viruses do not develop meningitis, however.

Other viruses that are much less common causes of aseptic meningitis include:

  • chicken pox
  • West Nile
  • influenza
  • measles
  • mumps
  • Herpesviruses
  • HIV

Some other conditions that may cause aseptic meningitis include:

  • certain drug allergies
  • inflammatory conditions

Vaccines for many of the viruses that cause aseptic meningitis exist.

Risk factors

Anyone can develop aseptic meningitis. However, children under the age of 5 are at most risk of developing the condition, particularly if they go to daycare or school.

Adults who work with young children in these settings are also at increased risk of developing aseptic meningitis.

Other people at risk of contracting aseptic meningitis include people who have:

  • HIV or AIDs
  • diabetes
  • other conditions that suppress the immune system

Symptoms

Symptoms of aseptic meningitis may include headache, chills, sensitivity to light, and nausea.

Symptoms of aseptic meningitis vary according to what is causing the condition. The symptoms can range in severity from so mild that a person may not even know they have it to much more serious.

Symptoms of aseptic meningitis can include a combination of the following:

  • headache
  • fever
  • chills
  • stomachache
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sensitivity to light
  • fatigue

In very young children and infants, the symptoms of aseptic meningitis may present differently.

Parents who think their infant may have aseptic meningitis should look out for the following signs:

  • fever
  • excessive crying or irritability
  • refusal to eat
  • extreme sleepiness

Young children and infants who have aseptic meningitis tend to present with more severe symptoms than adults. Adults with aseptic meningitis may confuse their symptoms with a cold or another viral illness, whereas infants may become much sicker.

Anyone who thinks they or their child may have aseptic meningitis should seek medical care as soon as possible. However, people who experience any of the following symptoms should seek immediate medical attention to rule out another, more serious condition:

  • stiff neck
  • seizures
  • severe, debilitating headache
  • change of consciousness

Diagnosis

To diagnose aseptic meningitis, a doctor will first do a physical exam to assess a person’s symptoms. If a person is very ill, the doctor will likely recommend some further tests to help diagnose the problem, including:

  • blood cultures
  • CT scansto check for brain swelling
  • chest X-rays

The only test that can confirm whether a person has meningitis or not is a spinal tap.

A spinal tap involves removing fluid from a person’s spinal column and analyzing it to check for viral or bacterial infections.

A doctor will also check the fluid for elevated protein and white blood cells, both of which indicate infection.

Treatment

Treatment options for aseptic meningitis vary according to its cause. Most adults and older children recover on their own within 2 weeks without any medical treatment. For these people, a doctor will likely recommend standard at-home care for a viral infection, including extra rest and fluids.

Sometimes, a doctor may prescribe medications to treat the underlying cause of aseptic meningitis. For example, if a fungal infection has caused a person to have aseptic meningitis, a doctor may prescribe antifungal medications.

Outlook

Most cases of aseptic meningitis resolve with no lasting complications. However, some people, particularly babies and people with weakened immune systems, may develop a severe illness from aseptic meningitis that requires a stay in the hospital.

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